You’ve probably heard about some of the common dietary restrictions that come with pregnancy – like no alcohol or sushi. But not everyone knows the complete list of foods that are off-limits during pregnancy, or the reasons behind it. And when it comes to the foods that you can eat while pregnant, you may wonder how much is enough.
You don’t have to eat for two in terms of volume, but you do need to eat for two in terms of quality. Below, we explain which foods to keep in and out of your diet for the next nine months, and why.
Healthy foods to eat while pregnant
Your pregnancy diet doesn’t need to be built around a strict set of specific foods. Instead, you can focus on getting enough of the nutrients that have been proven to contribute to healthy pregnancies. Your care provider will likely recommend that you meet your nutrient needs through a combination of food and supplements. These nutrients include:
Folate and folic acid
Folate (or folic acid when taken as a supplement) is a B vitamin that helps prevent birth defects in your baby’s brain and spine. Generally, people who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant need about 600 micrograms (mcg) daily, starting at least one month before conception.
Good sources of folate include fortified grain products (cereals, bread, pasta), as well as foods like spinach, beans and asparagus. It’s hard to reach 600 mcg through food alone, so a supplement containing at least 400 mcg folic acid is usually recommended to help reach the ideal daily dosage.
Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body. Because your body will be making more blood to support your baby, you’ll need about twice as much iron in your second and third trimesters as you do when you’re not pregnant. Generally, this looks like 27 milligrams (mg) a day.
You can find iron in fortified grain products, lean red meat, dark green leafy vegetables and beans. Iron is also included in most prenatal vitamins.
Your body uses calcium to build your baby’s bones, and you generally need around 1000 mg per day. This can be met with four servings of dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) per day. Other good sources of calcium include fortified grain products, fortified orange juice, fish, dark green leafy vegetables and almonds.
Vitamin D also contributes to bone development. 600 international units (IUs) is the recommended dose for all women, regardless of whether they’re pregnant. You can get vitamin D from fortified milk, fortified orange juice and fortified grain products. Good sources of naturally occurring vitamin D include fatty fish (such as salmon) and eggs.
Protein provides long-lasting energy and contributes to growth and development. Your pregnancy meal plan can include protein from a variety of sources, including meat, fish, eggs, beans, soy products, nuts and nut butters. Try to include a protein source in every meal.
Water helps your body function. And during pregnancy, water is also used to form amniotic fluid. To meet your pregnant body’s increased demand for water, it’s recommended that you drink around 8-12 cups of water daily.
What supplements to take during pregnancy
Even though there’s a large variety of healthy foods containing key nutrients during pregnancy, it can be hard to get as much of those nutrients as you need from food alone, particularly folate and iron. Because of this, your doctor or midwife will likely recommend or prescribe certain supplements.
Prenatal vitamins are a common example. As the name implies, prenatal vitamins are made specifically for pregnant people and people planning to get pregnant. Prenatal vitamins provide a combination of vitamins and minerals that support healthy pregnancies (frequently the same ones listed above), and are available over the counter in a wide range of stores.
Your care provider may also prescribe supplements based on other factors, like dietary restrictions. If you’re lactose intolerant and can’t eat dairy, for example, you may be prescribed a calcium supplement.
It’s important to let your care provider know about any other supplements you’re taking. Supplements aren’t tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and your care provider may want you to take a break from them during your pregnancy.
What not to eat when pregnant
There are two main factors that determine what foods to avoid during pregnancy – foods with a likelihood of containing bacteria or viruses and foods that may contain harmful substances (toxins or contaminants). Here are some examples:
1. The potential presence of bacteria or viruses
Being pregnant naturally weakens your immune system. This increases your risk of foodborne illnesses, including food poisoning from bacteria or viruses, which can have serious effects on you and your baby. To minimize your risk, avoid foods that could potentially contain bacteria or viruses, such as:
Raw or undercooked seafood
Examples include sushi, ceviche, lox and kippers. Canned and shelf-stable seafood is safe, but make sure any other seafood you eat is fully cooked.
Raw or undercooked meat and eggs
Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm, and use a meat thermometer to make sure meat gets to the appropriate internal temperature. As with seafood, fully cooked, canned and shelf-stable meat spreads are okay, but avoid anything that’s raw.
Also, be sure to avoid food products that use raw or undercooked eggs as an ingredient, such as cookie dough and freshly made salad dressings, mayonnaise, béarnaise and hollandaise sauces.
Hot dogs and deli meat can carry listeria, a bacteria that can cause serious food poisoning. Although listeria infections from these kinds of meat products are uncommon, it’s safest to avoid them. Alternatively, you can heat them until steaming just before you eat them.
Unpasteurized foods and drinks
Pasteurization is the process of heat-treating foods and drinks to kill any microorganisms that could cause illness if consumed. If you plan to eat dairy products during your pregnancy, make sure the products you’re choosing are clearly labeled as being made with pasteurized milk. Fresh juices are also unpasteurized, so it’s best to purchase store-bought, pasteurized juice during your pregnancy.
Unwashed fruits and vegetables
It may seem obvious, but make sure that your fruits and veggies have been thoroughly washed under running water. This will help get rid of any harmful bacteria that have hitched a ride.
Raw sprouts like mung beans, alfalfa and radishes can contain bacteria. If you want to eat sprouts, cook them thoroughly.
2. Harmful substances
Some foods contain toxins or contaminants that can be harmful to your baby’s development, and some drinks may have their own negative effects. The biggest sources of concern are:
High mercury content fish
Many fish naturally contain mercury, which in high amounts may affect the development of your baby’s nervous system. To protect your baby, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that you avoid fish that have high mercury content, including:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Bigeye tuna
However, ACOG also has a list of lower-mercury fish and seafood that pregnant women can eat two to three servings of per week. A lot of common fish and seafood are on this list, including:
There may be local fish advisories in your area due to pollution. If you’re buying locally sourced fish, look up your state’s advisories. Minnesotans can also use chooseyourfish.org to learn about state guidelines, find recipes and more.
No amount of alcohol is known to be safe during pregnancy. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases your risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, and your baby’s risk of developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which may lead to physical and mental issues.
Research isn’t conclusive about how high amounts of caffeine affect pregnancies. Because of this, the general rule is to limit caffeine intake to 200mg per day. That’s roughly one to two 8-ounce (oz) cups of coffee, depending on how it’s made.
The caffeine content of tea is generally lower, but this again depends on the type and amount of leaves used. A 6-oz cup of black tea usually has around 50 mg, while a similarly sized cup of oolong tea has about 30-40 mg. For green tea, it’s about 20-30 mg, and for white tea it’s around 15-20 mg.
Herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free, making them a good choice during pregnancy. However, there isn’t a lot of research available for all the herbs that can be included in herbal teas. And like other supplements, herbal teas aren’t tightly regulated. While herbal teas made from common ingredients like peppermint and ginger are likely to be safe, it’s best to check with your care provider.
Some studies suggest that there may be a link between preterm birth and eating a diet high in nitrites while using certain medicines during pregnancy. Nitrites are commonly found in bacon, deli meat and other processed meat products in the form of sodium nitrite, which is used as a preservative.
Although more research is needed, it may be a good idea to limit or avoid meat products that list sodium nitrite in their ingredients list. Talk to your care provider if you have questions about eating foods with nitrites during your pregnancy.
How much should you eat while pregnant?
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, people need to eat around 340 extra calories per day during their second trimester, and a bit more in their third trimester. These numbers may be higher or lower based on a few factors, including your weight at the beginning of your pregnancy, your body mass index (BMI), your activity level and whether you’re having multiples.
These extra calories are essential for supporting the natural, gradual weight gain that you’ll experience as your body changes to support your growing baby.
What to do about cravings during pregnancy
Cravings are real, and you don’t have to resist them. A treat here and there (assuming it isn’t from the “foods to avoid” list) is perfectly fine, and not something to feel bad about. Instead, limit the portion sizes of the unhealthy foods you crave, or satisfy cravings with healthy alternatives. For example, use a small bowl to limit a serving of ice cream or chips, or choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate. What’s most important is that unhealthy foods aren’t your main source of extra calories.
What to eat if you have morning sickness
There may be times when you can’t stick to your usual pregnancy eating patterns. Bouts of morning sickness are a perfect example. If you can’t keep most food down, focus on eating what you can keep down. In these cases, something is better than nothing. Foods such as bananas, rice, crackers and applesauce tend to be easier to eat when you’re looking to get relief from morning sickness.
Start eating for (the health of) two
From your first trimester onward, you do have to avoid eating and drinking a few things. But your pregnancy diet doesn’t have to be stale. You have a lot of options for getting your nutrient intake, and if you have questions, your doctor or midwife will be happy to answer them at your next prenatal appointment.
And if you aren’t pregnant yet, you can get a head start on your tests, questions and more by scheduling a preconception appointment.