Healthy eating when you are pregnant
Being pregnant is a very special time in your life, and you may be concerned about your diet. It is important that you eat a healthy varied diet when you are pregnant, because what you eat does not only influence your own health, it can also affect the short and long term health of your baby.
The basic principles of a healthy diet stay the same. You should still eat a diet that is based on starchy foods, and includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, moderate amounts of meat, fish and other protein sources, and moderate amounts of dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese. You should only eat limited amounts of foods and drinks that are high in fat and sugar. You can find more information on a healthy varied diet here.
Beside all the nutrients you get from a healthy varied diet, there are some vitamins and minerals that are very important for the development of your baby and of which you have increased requirements. To find out more, scroll to the next page.
As well as having a healthy diet it is also important to be aware of food safety and hygiene. There are certain foods and drinks that you should avoid or reduce consumption on when pregnant. For more information click here.
You may also want to have a look at our special section on diet and health in pregnancy Nutrition for Baby.
Watch out for these vitamins and minerals
This vitamin is important for the development of the neural tube, which develops into the central nervous system (this is the brain and the spinal cord). An adequate intake is essential to protect against neural tube defects including cleft palate, spina bifida and brain damage. Women who are pregnant or thinking of having a baby are advised to take a daily supplement containing 400 microgram (μg) folic acid (this means that ideally you will have started taking a supplement before becoming pregnant). Women who have a higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect may be advised by their doctor to take higher dose folic acid supplements. If you haven’t started taking this vitamin prior to your pregnancy, then you should start as early in the pregnancy as possible. This is because the first few weeks are the most important for the development of the neural tube. You should continue to take the supplement until the 12th week of pregnancy.
Natural folates, found in some fruits and vegetables are also important and the recommended intake for pregnant women is increased to 300 μg of folates per day (for non-pregnant women it is 200 μg per day) throughout pregnancy. Natural folates are found in oranges, bananas, and green leafy vegetables – for a folate-rich recipe, click here.
This vitamin is particularly important for healthy bones so your vitamin D status during pregnancy will effect the bone development of your baby. Your skin produces vitamin D when it is exposed to sunlight, but the sun in the UK is only strong enough in the summer months (April to September). So in the winter months and also if you are covered up at other times, the main source of vitamin D is food. However, food sources are limited; sources include oily fish, spreads and eggs. To make sure that you get enough vitamin D, you are advised to take a daily supplement containing 10 μg of vitamin D.
For a vitamin D-rich recipe click here.
When you are pregnant you should eat plenty of foods that are high in iron to avoid iron deficiency. Iron is found in red meat, pulses, eggs, bread, green vegetables and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Vitamin C helps your body absorb the iron from plant sources. So you will absorb more of the iron from a meal such as beans on toast if you have a glass of fruit juice with it. Tea or coffee can decrease the amount of iron your body absorbs, so try not to consume these with meals. Iron supplements are only necessary if you have low iron levels – ask your GP if you are worried about your iron levels.
For an iron-rich recipe, click here.
This vitamin is important for good health and also for a healthy development of your baby, but large amounts can be harmful for your baby. You should not take any supplements containing vitamin A (also watch out for multivitamin supplements). Further, you should avoid liver and liver products because they contain a lot of vitamin A.
Are you worried about how much more you need to eat? Scroll over to the next page to find out more.
Eating for two?
Many women think that they need to eat for two when they are pregnant, and this can encourage them to put on too much weight during pregnancy. In fact, the increase in energy (calorie) requirements during pregnancy is only a small fraction of the amount you normally need, particularly in the first trimester. Also, when you are pregnant you may become less active and burn less energy. In this case your body can use the extra energy you are no longer burning to help build important body tissues during pregnancy and for the development of your baby and you may need very little extra.
On average you are advised to eat an extra 200 kcal per day in the third trimester only (find some examples of foods that provide 200 kcal in table 1). But if you are underweight at the start of your pregnancy or if you stay as active as you were before getting pregnant then you may need more extra energy.
Table 1: Examples of foods and food combinations with 200 kcal
|• Banana shake with 1 banana + 150 g of low fat yogurt|
• Small sandwich with 2 slices of ham + 1 thin slice of low fat cheddar cheese
• 1 portion (160 g) of porridge with whole milk
• 70 g of raw pasta
• 30 g of mixed nuts
• 1/2 chicken breast, grilled without skin + 200 g of mixed vegetables, steamed
• 250 ml of fresh orange juice + 100 g of carrot sticks + 50 g of hummus
• 40 g chocolate bar
What about physical activity during pregnancy?
Being physically active can help you control weight gain during pregnancy and help maintain a healthy weight. It also seems to be good for your baby, and it doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on your health or the health of your baby if you exercise sensibly. If you didn’t exercise before you became pregnant don’t suddenly embark on a vigorous exercise programme. All pregnant women should consult a doctor or midwife before starting or continuing exercise.
When you work out during pregnancy you should avoid exercise laying on your back, contact sports, sports with a risk of falling (e.g. gymnastics, horseback riding), activities at high-altitude, hot tub immersion, and scuba diving. You should also avoid exercising at high temperatures (high body temperature can harm your baby) and always drink enough fluids before, during and after being active.
For more on physical activity in pregnancy, click here.
Want to know more about how much weight you should put on during pregnancy? Have a look at the next page!
How much weight should I put on?
When you are pregnant you should put on a minimum amount of weight to avoid low birth weight. Babies with low birth weight have a higher risk of developing diseases in adulthood such as heart disease, high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes as compared to babies with normal birth weight.
However, obesity in pregnancy increases the risk of complications in pregnancy and potentially affects the health of the child in later life. Your risk of diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy is increased, and so are the risk of complications during labour and the risk of an emergency caesarean operation. Also, if you put on too much weight during pregnancy you increase your chances of being overweight after your pregnancy.
On average, when you are normal weight before pregnancy you should put on between 10 and 14 kg over the full term. If you are overweight or obese before you become pregnant then you need to put on less weight – have a look at table 2 to see how much weight gain would be appropriate for you. However, you should not be dieting to lose weight during pregnancy and particularly avoid fad diets that encourage you to avoid specific foods or food groups. If you eat too little energy and nutrients, this can negatively affect the development and health of your baby.
If you are underweight before pregnancy, you may be advised to put on a bit more weight to reduce the risk of having a baby with a low birth weight.
Table 2: Recommended weight gain during pregnancy (USA)
|pp BMI <19.8||12.5 - 18 kg weight gain|
|pp BMI 19.8 - 26||11.5 - 16 kg weight gain|
|pp BMI >26 - 29||7 - 11.5 kg weight gain|
|pp BMI >29||≥ 6 kg weight gain|
pp - pre-pregnancy
Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board (1990) Nutrition during Pregnancy. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.
Food and drinks to avoid when pregnant
When you are pregnant you are advised to avoid alcohol altogether, particularly during the first three months as there is a link between alcohol consumption and the risk of miscarriage. If you choose to drink, you should not drink more than one or two units once or twice a week. A unit is a half pint of lower strength lager or one small pub measure of spirit (25ml). An average glass of wine is usually two units. You should avoid heavy drinking sessions because they can harm your baby.
Try to limit your caffeine intake to 200 mg per day. High amounts could lead to low birth weight and increases the risk of miscarriage. A mug of instant coffee contains 100 mg, a mug of filter coffee 140 mg, a mug of tea 75 mg, a can of cola 40 mg, and a 50 g bar of plain chocolate can contain up to 50 mg. The amount of caffeine in milk chocolate is about half that of plain chocolate. So don’t drink more than about two mugs of instant coffee or 3 mugs of tea per day.
Oily fish, such as salmon, pilchards, mackerel, herring and fresh (not canned) tuna are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which are required for the development of the brain and nervous system and the retina (the light sensitive tissue in the eyes) of your baby. All adults are advised to eat at least two portions of fish, of which one should be oily. When you are pregnant, you should not eat more than two portions of oily fish per week because they can contain low levels of pollutants which can build up in the body over time, posing a potential risk to a growing baby. Also, avoid eating shark, marlin and swordfish, and do not eat more than 4 cans of tuna or 2 medium sized tuna steaks per week. This is because these fish may contain traces of mercury, which could harm your baby’s nervous system.
There are some foodborne illnesses that may harm your baby or lead to miscarriage. To lower the risk of getting a foodborne illness you should avoid:
• Soft cheeses which are mould-ripened, e.g. Brie, Camembert and blue- veined cheeses
• Ready-meals that are undercooked, particularly if they contain poultry, or are not pre-heated before consumption, e.g. ready salads, quiches and cold meat pies
• Unwashed fruit and vegetables
• Raw or partially cooked eggs and products containing raw eggs, e.g. home-made mayonnaise
• Raw or undercooked meat (particularly poultry and minced meat)
• Contact of raw meat with products that are consumed raw
• Unpasteurised milk and milk products (particularly goat’s milk)
• Contact with soil or cat litter by wearing gloves when gardening or changing cat litter.
There is currently no convincing evidence that avoiding certain foods, such as peanuts, during pregnancy protects your baby against childhood allergy. If mothers would like to eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts during pregnancy or breastfeeding, then they can choose to do so as part of a healthy balanced diet, unless they are allergic to peanuts themselves.
As well as avoiding certain foods and drinks during pregnancy, it is also really important to prepare and store food hygienically. For more on food safety in pregnancy, click here.
Last reviewed 04/01/2013. Next review due 04/01/2016