When you're pregnant, it can be easy to scrutinize every single meal choice you make. After all, what you eat and drink affects your growing baby. It can also be easy to get carried away on the whole “eating for two” thing. Here’s our rundown of pregnancy nutrition—including what to make sure you're eating enough of, and what to avoid during your pregnancy.
What Are the Best Things to Eat When Pregnant?
The biggest thing to pay attention to throughout your pregnancy is eating a balanced, colorful diet. Think back to grade school and learning about the food groups. You should aim to get a good mix of proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy each day when possible. Each of these groups has a job to do for you and your baby’s healthy development. Here are some of the most important nutrients for both mama and baby during pregnancy:
- Protein: Eating plenty of protein daily is one of the most important parts of a pregnancy diet. Proteins are the building blocks for the cells that will create baby’s skin, muscle and hair. Aim for 75-100 grams of protein per day, or 2-3 servings of foods such as lean meat, low-mercury fish, nuts, legumes or eggs. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, be sure to consult with your provider or a nutritionist about your diet to ensure you’re getting sufficient protein from non-meat sources.
- Calcium: Much like the reason calcium is good for your own body, it’s great for baby’s too. Calcium is crucial for building baby’s bones and tooth buds. Aim for 1,000 milligrams a day during your pregnancy, or 3-4 servings of dairy a day. Good sources of dairy include milk, eggs, yogurt, pasteurized cheese, and even tofu.
- Iron: Iron helps create the protein in your red blood cells—incredibly essential during pregnancy. The amount of blood in your body increases by almost 50 percent during pregnancy as your body works to grow your placenta and your baby. Pregnant people need a daily intake of 27 milligrams (which is significantly more than non-pregnant people). Iron-rich foods include lean meat and poultry, beans, spinach and other dark greens, and fortified cereals and oatmeal. If you have been diagnosed with anemia previously, or find you are anemic during bloodwork in your pregnancy, your provider may recommend a daily iron supplement.
- Folate/Folic acid: Folate is a crucial part of nutrition during pregnancy. It helps prevent certain birth defects such as spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Pregnant women should ensure they get 600-800 micrograms daily. That much folate in and of itself can be difficult to consume through diet alone. This is part of why a prenatal vitamin is so important. Make sure you choose a prenatal vitamin that contains enough folic acid to meet your daily recommendation—and make sure to take it every day.
- Vitamins are necessary for baby’s growth and development. Vitamin A helps with bone growth and eye development, and can be found in foods like carrots, leafy greens and sweet potatoes. Vitamin C promotes healthy gums, teeth and bones (and supports your immune system, mama!), and can be found in citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, and strawberries. Vitamin D helps with baby’s bones, teeth, skin and eyesight, and is found in fortified milk, fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), and sunlight (a great reason to get outside!). B vitamins (such as B6 and B12) help form blood cells, maintain baby’s nervous system, and are found in meat, fish, milk, whole grain cereals, and bananas.
- Fiber: To round it all out, focus on a good amount of fruit and vegetable intake when possible to ensure you’re getting enough fiber. Fiber is crucial for helping mamas avoid one of the most frustrating pregnancy symptoms…constipation.
Aside from aiming for balance, it’s also important to eat intuitively when you’re pregnant. For instance: eat when you’re feeling hungry, not out of boredom. When you’re feeling like you need a snack, try your best to reach for a healthy choice. If you know you’ve been eating a lot of grains within a week, try to get in some extra veggies. Go with your gut, and you’ll do a great job.
What Foods Should I Avoid During Pregnancy?
There are foods that you should steer clear of during pregnancy, particularly because of their susceptibility to food borne illnesses and bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E.coli. During pregnancy your immune system simply isn’t as strong as usual, which makes it harder for your body to battle harmful microorganisms. Plus, your unborn baby’s immune system simply isn’t developed enough to battle them at all.
In order to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible—and safe from potentially harmful bacteria—avoid eating the following:
- Hot dogs (unless cooked until steaming hot)
- Lunch meats (unless reheated until steaming hot)
- Soft cheese (such as brie, feta, bleu cheese, queso blanco), unless its label says “made with pasteurized milk”
- Refrigerated smoked seafood (such as lox, smoked salmon, smoked whitefish, etc.)
- Undercooked meat (and no raw fish or shellfish)
- Unwashed produce and fresh squeezed juices (we know this one can sound strange, but dirty produce and fresh juices can carry bacteria like salmonella and E.coli. Pasteurized juices have been heated to high temperatures in order to kill bacteria, and doesn’t carry this risk.
- Raw sprouts. Bacteria can enter sprout seeds before they grow, so even thorough washing won’t eliminate bacteria. All sprout varieties should be cooked thoroughly before eating.
While cooked fish contain a lot of great nutrients for pregnant women, avoid eating fish with higher levels of mercury, which have been linked to developmental delays and brain damage. Fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna can contain high mercury levels. If you’re a canned tuna lover, reach for the chunk light variety, as it generally contains much lower amounts of mercury, but is still good to eat in moderation.
If you’re one of the mamas diagnosed with gestational diabetes during your pregnancy, it’s important to consult with your provider and create a plan about how to manage your blood sugar level. In general, those with gestational diabetes should aim to spread carbohydrates throughout the day in order to keep energy levels up, but keep their blood sugar level under control. Avoid foods high in sugar such as sweets and desserts, and limit simple carbohydrates like potatoes, white rice, and white bread (reach for whole grains when possible).
It’s also extremely important to eliminate alcohol, tobacco in any form, and any drug use during pregnancy. While you may have heard conflicting reports about having moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant, the American College of Gynecology says there is no safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy. If it is hard for you to stop drinking, smoking or taking drugs, speak with your provider about how to quit—they’re there to help you.
In terms of prescription or over-the-counter medications, it’s important to discuss the safety of all medications, vitamins and supplements with your provider. You and your provider will work together to assess each medication and decide what’s absolutely necessary for you to continue (or stop) taking in order to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible.
Another substance that needs to be reduced (or eliminated) during pregnancy? Caffeine. It’s recommended to keep your caffeine intake under 200 mg during pregnancy—that’s the equivalent of two 8-ounce cups of coffee. Check the labels on your coffee, tea, and even chocolate to get a sense of how much caffeine you consume in a day.
We know, mama—it can feel like there are a lot of rules and recommendations when it comes to your nutrition during pregnancy. If you have any questions or concerns about your diet, chat with your provider.