Should You Diet When You’re Pregnant?

With you reading this article, we believe congratulations are in order? You are most likely expecting a baby? Now that there are 2 of you, it is very important to keep a healthy lifestyle. Aside from eating a balanced diet, experts recommend the following key components – appropriate weight gain, exercising, and sufficient and timely vitamin and mineral supplementation (1).

During this time, your body will go through several physical and hormonal changes. Poor eating choices and patterns, along with excessive weight gain, may likewise increase your risk of gestational diabetes and other birth complications (2). Also, if you lack nutrients in your diet, it can negatively affect your baby’s health and development (3, 4, 5).

Your diet should be a mixture of healthy, nutritious foods, and beverages. This would include a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and the consumption of different plants like vegetables, and fruits. By following some fairly easy nutrition tips below, you can be on your way to a healthy and enjoyable pregnancy.

Calories, Fluids, and Weight Gain During Pregnancy

Two of the most basic nutrition tips you need to know during pregnancy include calorie intake and weight gain.

Additional Calories

Expect your calorie intake to grow. Approximately 300 extra calories are needed daily to maintain a healthy pregnancy, especially during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters (1). This should come from nutrient-packed foods like lean meats, low-fat dairy, whole grain products, fruits, and vegetables. It’s very important to carefully consider the foods you eat during pregnancy. You are advised to eat a variety of foods and lessen your sweets and treats.


Fluid intake is also an important part of healthy pregnancy nutrition. You can take in enough fluids by increasing your daily water intake, in addition to healthy juices and soups. Caffeine and artificial sweeteners should be limited. Alcohol must be avoided.

Weight Gain

Gaining the right amount of weight during pregnancy is a good sign that your baby is growing at a healthy rate by getting all of the nutrients he or she needs.

Weight gain must be slow and gradual. You are expected to gain approximately 2-4 pounds for the 1st trimester and 1 pound weekly for the remainder of the pregnancy. Weight gain varies considerably based on pre-pregnancy weight and several other factors. A woman of average weight before pregnancy may gain 15-35 pounds. You may need to gain more or less depending on whether you are underweight or overweight when you get pregnant. Recommendations also differ if you are carrying twins or more.

Recommended Nutrients During Pregnancy

With your body’s increasing nutritional needs during pregnancy, you’ll need additional micronutrients and macronutrients to support you and your baby.

Micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, are only needed in minute amounts. Macronutrients, on the other hand, are extensively needed for energy. These include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

While nearly all nutrients are important for pregnant women, the following should be of great focus:

1. Folic Acid

Folate or folic acid is a B vitamin that promotes red blood cell formation. It also encourages the production of DNAs and other important chemical signals in the nervous system. Perhaps more importantly, folic acid is popular for its protective effect against the development of neural tube defects in babies, affecting their brain and spinal cord (6).

However, it is not easy to get the recommended amount of folic acid from diet alone. For that reason, women who are trying to have a baby are advised to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily for at least a month before conceiving. During pregnancy, receiving at least 600 micrograms daily from all sources, including diet, is critical (7, 8).

Excellent sources of folic acid include cooked beef liver, cooked green leafy vegetables, beans, asparagus, avocado, and fortified cereals.

2. Calcium

As we all know, calcium is very important for bone health, but it is also critical for the development and function of the heart, muscles, and blood clotting system (9). The fetus will need a huge supply of calcium during development. It is believed that a total body store of 25 grams at birth is needed, all of which are drawn from the mother.

Pregnant women need 1000 milligrams of calcium daily (10). Prenatal supplements only have 150-200 milligrams of calcium. Therefore, supplements alone cannot meet the requirements.

Milk and dairy products are good sources of calcium. Greek yogurt is highly recommended for pregnant women as it contains more calcium than most other dairy products. Some varieties contain probiotic bacteria, too, which can support digestive health (11, 12, 13, 14).

Sardines or salmon with bones, milk, cheese, yogurt, calcium-fortified juices and foods, beans, tofu, and dark leafy green vegetables are rich in calcium too!

3. Iron

Iron is an important mineral that is used by the red blood cells as a part of hemoglobin. It plays a crucial role in delivering oxygen to all cells in the body. During pregnancy, blood volume increases; hence, women need more iron.

Lack of iron during pregnancy may lead to iron deficiency anemia, which makes you twice as likely to have premature delivery and low birth weight (15). Pregnant women should have 27 milligrams of iron daily, which is double the amount needed by women who are not expecting (10).

Your best dietary source of iron is red meat. But if you are one of those who developed an aversion to meat, you can get non-heme iron in vegetables like beans, lentils, spinach, and blackstrap molasses. To maximize their absorption, pair them with a vitamin C rich foods like bell peppers or oranges.

4. Other B Vitamins

B vitamins, which are more commonly known as the vitamin B complex, should be part of your nutrition during pregnancy. They can help minimize the risk of birth defects and relieve some symptoms of pregnancy (16).

B1 (Thiamine) and B6 (Pyroxidine) are important for the metabolism and development of the brain, nervous system, and heart. Pregnant women should take about 1.4 and 1.9 milligrams daily, respectively.
B2 (Riboflavin) is important for fetal development and growth. Pregnant women should have 1.4 milligrams daily. While a prenatal vitamin may be your consistent source, B2 can also be found in milk and dairy products, with smaller amounts found in pork, grains, and soybeans.
B12 is mainly found in meats and dairy products. Nutritional yeast, fortified with B12, is recommended for vegetarians.

5. Vitamin C

Vitamin C deficiency during pregnancy may cause serious consequences for the fetal brain, and these are irreversible (17). However, your body does not stockpile vitamin C, so you need regular sources to meet your daily requirement, which is 85 milligrams. Consume more citrus fruits, lemon or lime infused water, berries, bell peppers, and broccoli.

6. Protein

Proteins are present in every cell of the body, making up the skin, muscles, hair, nails, and all other tissues. They give structure to cells and help them function and repair properly (18).

During pregnancy, the protein you eat helps your baby grow normally while contributing to other important functions like growth and repair of tissues, production of antibodies, hormones, and enzymes, assisting muscles to work properly, and delivery of oxygen through their blood (19). Your own need for protein increases, too, with a healthy intake needed to support the different changes your body is going through.

Pregnant women are advised to have 75-100 grams of protein daily, but more is required for women who are underweight or with high-risk pregnancy (10). Healthful, animal-sourced proteins include lean meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. If you are a vegan, you may take quinoa, beans, legumes, lentils, seeds, nuts, tofu, and other soy products.

7. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in your diet (20). They are broken down into simple sugars like glucose, which can readily pass through the placenta and provide energy to support your growing baby during pregnancy.

There are different types of carbohydrates, though. For a steady supply of energy, approximately one-third of your daily food intake should be starchy carbohydrates. Most starchy foods like potatoes, bread, cereals, rice, and pasta can provide other important nutrients like iron, calcium, and B vitamins, which are all important for your baby’s development (20).

8. Healthy Fats

We often limit our intake of fatty foods because we believe that all kinds are bad for our health. While it is true that some types carry health risks, fat is also an important source of energy and helps the body absorb nutrients. It also provides essential fatty acids that our body can’t produce, but are vital for your baby’s development during pregnancy (21).

However, fat should not make up more than 30% of your diet. Experts say that a high-fat diet may modify gene expression in the liver of a developing baby, causing them to produce more glucose, which can increase the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes (22).

Monounsaturated and omega 3s should be your primary fat choices. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential during pregnancy, especially DHA and EPA. These are present in high amounts in seafood and can help build the brain and eyes of your fetus (23).

Studies also showed that pregnant women who eat 2-3 meals of fatty fish weekly achieved the recommended intake of omega-3 and have increased blood levels of EPA and DHA (24, 25). Eat more salmon, sardines, trout, and herring.

Fish liver oil is also very rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming cod liver oil during early pregnancy has been associated with higher birth weight and a decreased risk of disease later in the baby’s life (26). One tablespoon or 15 ml of fish liver oil offers more than the recommended daily intake of not just omega-3, but also vitamins A and D. You may also use olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil. Avocados, seeds, and many nuts are great sources of healthy fats too!

9. Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain many important nutrients for pregnancy. Aim for five portions daily. You can choose to have it fresh, juiced, dried, canned, or frozen. Fresh and frozen produce normally contain higher levels.

Dates are highly recommended during the 3rd trimester. They are rich in fiber, iron, potassium, and plant compounds. Regular consumption of dates can help facilitate cervical dilatation and reduce the need to induce labor (27, 28).

10 Important Foods To Eat When You Are Pregnant

1. Dairy Products

Pregnant women must consume extra protein and calcium to meet the needs of the growing fetus (29, 30). Dairy products contain two types of important protein – whey and casein.

Yogurt, specifically Greek yogurt, is beneficial for expecting mothers (31). It has more calcium than other varieties. Others have probiotic bacteria, which can be helpful for digestion and is suitable for lactose intolerant (32, 33, 34).

Probiotic supplements may also help reduce your risks of allergies, vaginal infections, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia (35).

2. Legumes

Legumes are excellent plant-based sources of protein, iron, folate, calcium, and fiber – all of which are important during pregnancy. Folate is particularly needed during the first trimester. However, most pregnant women are not getting nearly enough folate (36, 37). This has been linked with an increased risk of neural tube defects and low birth weight. Babies are also more prone to infections and diseases later in life (38, 39).

To prevent these possible complications, eat more soybeans, beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts!

3. Sweet Potatoes

Who doesn’t love the taste of sweet potatoes? They are rich in beta-carotene, a plant compound that is converted into vitamin A in the body. This is very important for the growth and differentiation of many cells and tissues in the body of a growing fetus (40).

However, you must be cautious when taking vitamin A from animal-based products. This may cause toxicity when eaten excessively (41).

4. Salmon

Salmon contains high amounts of essential omega-3 fatty acids. The long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, DHA, and EPA, are needed to help build the brain and eyes of your baby (42). These are abundant in seafood, but intake should be limited to twice weekly to avoid mercury and other contaminants (43).

Salmon is also rich in vitamin D, which is important for bone health and immune function (44).

5. Eggs

Who doesn’t eat eggs? These are considered the ultimate health food as they contain a little bit of almost everything! One large egg contains approximately 77 calories, as well as protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. It’s also rich in choline, which is important for brain development (45).

6. Broccoli and Dark, Leafy Vegetables

Broccoli and other dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, are excellent sources of folate, iron, potassium, fiber, and vitamins A, C, and K. They are also rich in antioxidants.

Consuming these veggies can help reduce the risk of low birth weight (46, 47). Its high fiber content is also helpful in digestion (48).

7. Lean Meat

Pork, beef, and chicken are excellent sources of high-quality protein. Beef and pork are also rich in choline, iron, and other B vitamins, which are needed in greater amounts during pregnancy.

Iron is specifically important in delivering oxygen to all cells in the body. A decrease in iron levels during pregnancy may cause anemia, which increases the risks of premature delivery and low birth weight (49).

8. Fish Liver Oil

Aside from being rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain and eye development, fish liver oil also has high amounts of vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with increased risk of preeclampsia (50).

Consuming cod liver oil during early pregnancy is highly recommended. Get a single serving or one tablespoon daily. Do not consume more as excessive amounts of preformed vitamin A can be dangerous for your baby. Also, excessive amounts of omega-3 may have blood-thinning effects (51).

9. Berries

Berries are not only delicious but also nutritious! They offer a lot of flavor and nutrition, minus the calories! They are packed with water, healthy carbs, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Vitamin C helps your body absorb more iron. It is also important for immune function and skin health (52, 53).

10. Whole Grains

Consuming whole grains will help you meet your increased calorie demands, especially during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. Unlike refined grains, these are packed with fiber, vitamins, and plant compounds. Quinoa and oats also contain protein.

Foods and Drinks to Avoid During Pregnancy

Expecting mothers have to pay close attention to what they eat to avoid harmful foods and beverages. Some foods can be consumed in moderation, while others should be dodged completely. Check the list below:

1. High-Mercury Fish

Mercury is a very toxic element, which has no known safe level of exposure. Ingestion of high amounts can cause toxicity and affect the immune system, nervous system, and kidneys. It is abundant in polluted seas, thus infecting large marine fish.

Pregnant women are advised to limit their consumption of high-mercury fish like albacore tuna, king mackerel, shark, and swordfish to no more than 1-2 servings monthly (54, 55).

2. Raw or Undercooked Eggs, Fish, and Meat

Salmonella is often present in raw eggs. In rare and severe cases, the infection may cause cramps in the uterus, leading to premature delivery or stillbirth (56). Try to avoid eating poached eggs, lightly scrambled eggs, homemade mayonnaise, salad dressings, and icings. Always cook eggs thoroughly or choose pasteurized eggs.

Raw fish, especially shellfish, may cause different types of infections. These can be bacterial, viral, or parasitic. Common causative agents include Vibrio, Salmonella, norovirus, and Listeria. While some may only affect the mother, others may easily be passed on to the fetus with serious complications (57, 58, 59).

Pregnant women are more susceptible to Listeria infections. They are 20 times more at risk than the general population (60). This bacteria is present in soil and contaminated plants and water. Contamination of raw fish occurs during processing, which includes smoking and drying. Listeria can pass through the placenta and affect the unborn fetus, even if the mother is asymptomatic. This may lead to premature delivery, miscarriage, and stillbirth (61). You must completely avoid raw fish like sushi and shellfish.

Eating raw or undercooked meat may increase your risk of infections caused by Toxoplasma, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (62, 63, 64, 65). These bacteria may threaten your fetus’ health, which may cause stillbirth or severe neurological conditions like blindness, epilepsy, and intellectual disability (66).
While whole cuts of meat like beef, lamb, and veal may be safe to eat when completely cooked on the outside, cut meat like burgers, patties, minced meat, pork, and poultry, should never be eaten raw or undercooked.

Hot dogs, deli meat, and lunch meat are also dangerous. These types of meat are often contaminated during processing or storage. Pregnant women should not eat processed foods unless they have been cooked or heated.

3. Unwashed Fruits and Vegetables

Unwashed or unpeeled fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of bacteria and parasites like Toxoplasma, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (67). Contamination can occur during harvesting, processing, storage, delivery, and retail.

One dangerous parasite that commonly lingers on fruits and vegetables is Toxoplasma. Most patients with Toxoplasmosis are asymptomatic, while others feel like they have flu, which lasts for a month or more.

Toxoplasma can affect an unborn baby inside a mother’s womb. While there will be no symptoms at birth, it may cause blindness or intellectual disabilities later on in life. In rare cases, it may also lead to serious eye damage or brain damage at birth. So try not to risk yourself of infection by cleaning, peeling, or cooking your favorite fruits and vegetables (68).

4. Unpasteurized Milk, Cheese, and Fruit Juice

Raw milk and unpasteurized cheese are normally contaminated with Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. The same is true for unpasteurized juice. These infections can cause life-threatening consequences for the fetus (69, 70, 71, 72).

Pasteurization is the best way to kill these harmful bacteria, without altering its nutritional content and value (73). To reduce the risk of infections, always choose pasteurized milk, cheese, and juices.

5. Caffeine and Alcohol

Everybody seems to love coffee, tea, cocoa, and soft drinks. But all of these contain caffeine, which is absorbed and pass through the placenta quickly. High levels can accumulate when taken excessively and may restrict fetal growth and cause low birth weight (74, 75).

Unborn babies lack the main enzyme needed to metabolize caffeine; thus pregnant women are advised to limit their intake to less than 200 milligrams daily (76).

Pregnant women should completely avoid drinking alcohol. It can increase your risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Even just a small amount can greatly impact your baby’s brain development in a negative way (77, 78, 79, 80). It can also lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which usually presents with heart defects, facial deformities, and intellectual disability (81, 82).

No level of alcohol has been proven to be safe for expecting women. It is a must to avoid it altogether!

The Bottomline

Everything you eat during pregnancy will greatly affect your health and your baby. Since your calorie and nutrient needs have grown, it is really important that you always choose nutrient-packed, healthy foods.

Taking prenatal vitamins or supplements will help get you the recommended daily requirements. Proper handling of food should help protect you against microbes.

Always check with your doctor and dietitian if you have concerns about your diet.



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