It’s always important to eat a balanced diet and it’s even more important when you’re pregnant because what you eat is the main source of nutrients for your baby. However, many women don’t get enough iron, folate, calcium, vitamin D, or protein. So when you are pregnant, it is important for you to increase the amounts of foods you eat with these nutrients.
Most women can meet their increased needs with a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), you should try to eat a variety of foods from these basic food groups. If you do, you are likely to get all the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy.
What Are Prenatal Vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are multivitamins for pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant. Compared to a regular multivitamin, they have more of some nutrients that you need during pregnancy. Your health care provider may prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you, or you can buy them over the counter without a prescription. Take a prenatal vitamin every day during pregnancy. If you’re planning to get pregnant, start taking prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant.
Your body uses vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food to strong and healthy. During pregnancy, your growing baby gets all necessary nutrients from you. So you may need more during pregnancy than you did before. If you’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more), you may need more nutrients than if you’re pregnant with one baby. Your prenatal vitamin contains the right amount of nutrients you need during pregnancy.
If you’re a vegetarian, have food allergies or can’t eat certain foods, your provider may want you to take a supplement to help you get more of certain nutrients. A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in foods you eat. For example, your provider may recommend that you take a vitamin supplement to help you get more vitamin D, iron or calcium.
11 Key Nutrients for Pregnant Women
While nearly all nutrients are important during pregnancy, the following should be of great focus:
1. Folic Acid
Also known as folate when found in foods, folic acid is a B vitamin that helps stimulate red blood cell formation and the production of important chemical signals in the nervous system. It is also involved in the process of making DNAs. Perhaps more importantly, folic acid is well recognized for its protective effect against the development of neural tube defects, which affects the baby’s brain and spinal cord (1).
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.
Excellent sources of folic acid include cooked beef liver, cooked green leafy vegetables, beans, asparagus, avocado, and fortified cereals.
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 (2). The fetus requires 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. 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.
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!
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 (3). Pregnant women should have 27 milligrams of iron daily, which is double the amount needed by women who are not expecting.
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.
Observational studies suggest that zinc deficiency during pregnancy may cause adverse pregnancy outcomes for both the mother and the fetus. After several assessments, evidence showed that pregnant zinc supplementation can help decrease the risk of premature delivery by 14% (4).
Dietary sources of zinc include red meat, beans, nuts, and seeds.
5. 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 (5).
- 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.
6. Vitamin C
Vitamin C deficiency during pregnancy may cause serious consequences for the fetal brain and these are irreversible (6). 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.
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 (7).
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, helping muscles work properly, and delivery of oxygen through their blood (8). 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. 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.
8. Starchy Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in your diet. 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 (9).
9. Monounsaturated 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.
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.
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.
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 (10, 11). 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. 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!
Fiber should be considered vital for pregnancy due to many benefits. It helps with digestion, provides important nutrients like vitamin B groups, and prevents constipation and weight gain. Fiber can also help reduce cardiovascular risk during pregnancy as well as the development of childhood allergies later in life.
To better include fiber in your diet, eat fresh fruits, dark, leafy greens, whole grain bread, cereals, beans, and lentils.
11. 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 (12).
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.
2. Raw or Undercooked Fish
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.
Pregnant women are more susceptible to Listeria infections. They are 20 times more at risk than the general population (13). 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 (14). You must completely avoid raw fish like sushi and shellfish.
3. Raw, Undercooked, and Processed Meat
Eating raw or undercooked meat may increase your risk of infections caused by Toxoplasma, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. These bacteria may threaten your fetus’ health, which may cause stillbirth or severe neurological conditions like blindness, epilepsy, and intellectual disability (15).
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.
4. Raw Eggs
Salmonella is often present in raw eggs. Pregnant women infected with Salmonella will commonly present with fever, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. In rare cases, the infection may also cause cramps in the uterus, leading to premature delivery or stillbirth (16).
Try to avoid eating poached eggs, lightly scrambled eggs, homemade mayonnaise, salad dressings, and icings. Always cook eggs thoroughly or choose pasteurized eggs.
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 (17).
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.
6. Raw Sprouts
Raw sprouts, which include your favorite radish, mung bean sprouts, alfalfa, and clover, may be contaminated with Salmonella. The humid environment needed by these seeds to start growing is perfect for these kinds of bacteria and they are not easily washed off. For this reason, pregnant women must avoid eating raw sprouts altogether. But, in cases where you cannot really avoid it, make sure it is cooked thoroughly.
7. Unwashed Fruits and Vegetables
Unwashed or unpeeled fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of bacteria and parasites like Toxoplasma, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. 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.
8. 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.
Pasteurization is the best way to kill these harmful bacteria, without altering its nutritional content and value (18). To reduce the risk of infections, always choose pasteurized milk, cheese, and juices.
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 (19). It can also lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which usually presents with heart defects, facial deformities, and intellectual disability (20, 21).
No level of alcohol has been proven to be safe for expecting women. It is a must to avoid it altogether!
What you consume during pregnancy greatly affects your health and your baby. Since your calorie and nutrient needs are increased, 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 food hygiene and preparation will help protect you against harmful microbes.
Always check with your doctor and dietitian if you have concerns about your diet.