A healthy diet and good nutrition during pregnancy ensure that your baby gets the best start possible. The best diet is a balanced diet that provides ample amounts of:
- healthy types of fat
- vitamins and minerals
A healthy diet during pregnancy contains much of the same balance of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients as a healthy diet in general. The difference is that you need higher amounts. If you already have healthy eating habits, it will be easy to make slight adjustments to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
The American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant women consume an additional 300 calories over their normal intake requirements. Avoid dieting and the urge to binge eat during pregnancy. The old adage that you need to “eat for two” is purely a myth: the key is moderation. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends using the MyPlate app or website to plan meals and serving sizes appropriately based on your body weight, exercise level, gestational age, and maternal age.
Whenever possible, eat complex carbohydrates, such as:
- whole-grain breads and pastas
Stay away from their nutritionally deficient cousins, the simple carbohydrates:
- white bread
The American Pregnancy Association recommends between 75 and 100 grams daily. Your doctor may recommend more protein if your pregnancy is considered high risk or you are underweight.
Vegetables and fruits
Vegetables contain significant amounts of:
- vitamins A and C
- vitamin E
- folic acid
- B vitamins
- trace minerals
Grains and legumes
Whole grains and legumes, such as dried peas and beans, and other healthy carbohydrates like fruit and starchy vegetables should be part of a healthy diet. They provide B vitamins and trace minerals, such as zinc selenium and magnesium. Grains and legumes are full of nutrients, including the various B vitamins: thiamin (vitamin B-1), riboflavin (vitamin B-2), folate, and niacin.
Your growing baby needs these for the development of just about every part of their body. Folate intake significantly reduces the risk of having a baby with spina bifida. These foods supply energy for your baby’s development and help build the placenta and other tissues in your body.
Try to eat 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day to help prevent constipation and hemorrhoids. You can get these from whole grains, veggies, legumes, and fruit. Products labeled refined or enriched aren’t as beneficial to you or your baby.
You should eat iron-rich foods daily. Since many women don’t get enough iron in their diet, iron is an important part of prenatal supplements. Iron is often poorly absorbed from plant foods, which is why it’s difficult for many people to reach the proper requirement. Talk to your doctor if you are prone to iron-deficiency anemia. They may recommend a supplement. Iron-rich foods include:
- fortified cereals
- red meats
- kidney, lima, and navy beans
Unhealthy high-fat foods include fried foods, saturated fats, and packaged products containing trans fats. While you do not want to consume excessive amounts of fats, it’s also dangerous to eliminate all fat from your diet. A healthy balance is recommended. Essential fatty acids are important, including omega-3 fatty acids. Some examples of healthy fats include:
- pumpkin and sunflower seeds
- chia seeds
- fatty fish
- olive oil
These foods provide the right types of fats for your baby’s brain development.
You should eat salty foods in moderation.
Fluids are an important part of a healthy diet. You should consume at least 64 ounces, or eight glasses, per day, and more is better. During pregnancy, you should limit caffeinated drinks to not exceed 200 milligrams of caffeine per day, according to the ACOG.
Water also reduces your chance of constipation and the subsequent hemorrhoids that can develop from straining during defecation. The increased flow of urine also reduces your risk of developing a urinary tract infection, which can be dangerous for you and your baby.
If you choose to take supplements during your pregnancy, make sure you read the labels of every bottle. It’s important to stay within the daily allowance. Keep in mind that a complete prenatal vitamin should have a balance of the nutrients that you need, and taking additional supplements may give you more than the recommended daily dosing in total.
Always discuss any supplements or over-the-counter medications you wish to take with your doctor for individual advice.
Folic acid is an important vitamin that stimulates red blood cell formation and the production of important chemical signals in the nervous system. It’s also important in the process of making DNA. Perhaps more importantly, folic acid has been identified as a critical vitamin to prevent neural tube defects in your baby, such as spina bifida.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends taking 400 micrograms a day before you conceive, and receiving at least 600 micrograms a day from all sources, including diet, during pregnancy.
Good sources of folic acid include:
- cooked green leafy vegetables
- beef liver, cooked
- great northern beans
- fortified cereal
This vitamin (B-5) is involved in many of the body’s regulatory and metabolic activities. The recommended daily allowance for the average person is 4 to 7 milligrams. Pantothenic acid is present in:
- meats, including chicken and beef
- whole grains
- egg yolks
This vitamin is important for fetal development and growth. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for pregnant women is 1.4 milligrams and 1.6 milligrams for nursing women. A prenatal vitamin may be your best consistent source, but B-2 can be found in milk and dairy products, with smaller amounts present in soybeans, grains, and pork.
Thiamine is important for metabolism and development of the brain, nervous system, and heart. When you’re pregnant, you need increased amounts of many vitamins, including B-1. The RDA for pregnant women is about 1.4 milligrams.
Vitamin A is critical for proper cell growth and the development of the eyes, skin, and blood, as well as immunity and resistance to infection.
Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B-6 is important for your body’s metabolism and for the development of the fetal brain and nervous systems. The RDA for pregnant women is 1.9 milligrams.
Vitamin B-12 is found mainly in meats and dairy products. So it can be a problem for vegans or strict vegetarians. If you have dietary restrictions, make sure that your vitamin supplement has adequate B-12. Nutritional yeast, fortified with B-12, is a great staple for vegetarians. It has a salty and savory flavor and tastes similar to Parmesan cheese.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
The body does not stockpile Vitamin C, so you need regular sources to fulfill your daily requirement. The RDA for pregnant women is 85 milligrams per day. You can reach your goal through daily intake of citrus fruits, adding fresh lemon or lime juice to your water, and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables like berries, bell peppers, and broccoli.
Humans produce vitamin D in their skin in response to sunlight. Vitamin D itself is found naturally only in some fish liver oils. Since exposure to sunlight is variable and this vitamin is so important for pregnant women and growing children, all milk is now fortified with vitamin D per quart as regulated by the U.S. government. Vitamin D supplements are especially important if you don’t drink milk. Your doctor can check vitamin D levels to guide supplementation if you are taking a supplement.
Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, as most people know. But it’s also critical for proper development and function of the heart and other muscles, as well as for the blood clotting system. The fetus demands a huge supply of calcium during development. It’s thought to have a total body store of 25 grams of calcium at birth, all of which is received from the mother.
Pregnant women need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Milk and dairy products are great sources of calcium, as is calcium-fortified orange juice and bread. Canned fish with bones, calcium-set tofu, cooked beans, and cooked dark leafy greens also provide calcium. Prenatal supplements usually contain only 150 to 200 milligrams of calcium. So, prenatal vitamins alone cannot provide sufficient calcium to a pregnant woman.
Iodine is critical for the development and functioning of the thyroid gland and regulation of metabolism. The RDA for pregnant women is 220 micrograms per day. You can get iodine from:
- fluoridated drinking water
- iodized (table) salt
- brewer’s yeast
Iron is a crucial element in many of the body’s processes. Iron supplements are important for most women, as few women get enough iron through their diet. Often, women who lack iron become anemic. Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common forms of anemia. It can be regulated through iron supplements.
Your best dietary source of iron is red meat, such as beef. You can get non-heme iron (found in vegetables) from lentils, spinach, black strap molasses, and many kinds of beans. To improve the absorption of plant or non-heme iron, pair the food with a vitamin-C-rich source. For example, add fresh sliced bell peppers or strawberries to your spinach salad. The American Pregnancy Association recommends a daily intake of 27 milligrams of iron for pregnant women.
Magnesium is an important element for teeth and bones, regulation of blood-sugar levels, and the proper functioning of body proteins. It’s also important for tissue growth and repair, and may play a role in reducing preterm delivery. The recommended upper limit for magnesium for pregnant women is around 300 milligrams. A good diet usually provides enough magnesium, so it’s not present in most prenatal vitamins. The best food sources of magnesium are:
- seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin
- wheat germ
You can also take Epsom salt baths twice a week to increase your blood magnesium levels.
Chromium is important for your baby’s development. You should get about 30 micrograms per day. Foods that contain significant amounts of chromium include:
- whole-wheat bread
- peanut butter
- wheat germ
Copper stimulates the growth of cells and tissues, hair growth, and general metabolism. It’s a critical component of the baby’s major systems: the heart and circulatory system, the skeleton, and the nervous system. One milligram of copper is recommended daily.
The RDA of zinc for pregnant women is 11 milligrams per day and 12 milligrams for nursing women. You can buy prenatal vitamins that contain zinc. Sources include red meat, seeds, nuts, and beans.
Potassium is a mineral that affects cellular function, fluid balance, and blood pressure regulation, as well as proper nerve and muscle function. While there’s no recommended daily allowance for nonpregnant adults, most doctors agree that pregnant women require at least 2,000 milligrams per day. Prenatal vitamins can provide potassium, but potassium is present at high levels in foods such as:
- dark leafy greens
This element is an important part of the development of the muscular, circulatory, and skeletal systems. The recommended daily allowance for nonpregnant women is 700 milligrams for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Sources include milk, yogurt, beans, seafood, and nuts.
Taking prenatal multivitamins will ensure that you get the basic requirements. But vitamin-packed, fresh foods will help your baby get the best start in life.
You should always talk to your doctor and dietitian if you are concerned about your diet. They can help you determine if you are getting enough nutrients.