Nutrition & Exercise

Pregnancy Diet: What To Eat When You're Pregnant

You’re eating for two but what should you be eating? Use our pregnancy diet guide to ensure optimal health for you and your bundle.

You’re eating for two but what should you be eating? Use our pregnancy diet guide to ensure optimal health for you and your bundle.

Why Eating Right Is Important

Sure, you know skipping breakfast and feasting on Pop-Tarts is a bad idea now. New studies show that the benefits of healthy eating are even more significant than previously known. An Oregon Health & Science University Doernbecher Children's Hospital study found that women who eat a high fat diet are more likely to have babies that have higher fat mass and smaller livers. Another recent study concluded that taking prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk of having children with autism. The benefits of eating right are undeniable but what exactly should you be eating?

What to Eat

An expectant mom should consume an extra 300 calories each day. It’s tempting to grab a pint of Cherry Garcia and dig in but unfortunately our friends Ben and Jerry don’t have the right stuff for supporting healthy fetal development and growth. The extra calories you eat should come from nutrient-rich food that supports you and your growing baby. There isn’t one perfect pregnancy diet but for the most part, eating a well-balanced diet – lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, will give your baby what he needs. However there are a few nutrients that are essential to a healthy pregnancy diet.

Folic Acid

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a naturally occurring B vitamin found in many foods.  Researchers recommend that women get 600 micrograms of folic acid a day to reduce the risk of serious birth defects.  According to Lisa Brown, registered dietician and co-owner of Brown and Medina Nutrition, “The best way to get this micronutrient is through whole grains, citrus fruits, fortified hot and cold cereal.” But don’t rely solely on diet, a prenatal vitamin.

Protein

Your baby is dependent on protein to grow. The USDA recommends 71 grams a protein a day and getting enough is especially important in the second and third trimesters. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, and lentils.

Calcium

A calcium rich diet will give you and your baby strong bones and teeth. Calcium also keeps your circulatory, muscular and nervous systems in tip-top shape. USDA nutritionists recommend 1,000 milligrams a day. Dairy is the preferred source of calcium but salmon, calcium-fortified orange juice, and spinach are good too.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps build your baby’s bones and teeth. The RDA for pregnant women is 600 IU a day. Salmon is an excellent source of vitamin D as are fortified milk and juice, asparagus, and eggs.

Iron

Get enough iron during your pregnancy (27 milligrams a day) to minimize the risk of preterm labor and low birth weight. It’s not just vital for your new womb-mate – an iron deficiency during pregnancy can leave you susceptible to infections and feeling fatigued. Find iron in iron-fortified cereals, meat, beans, and spinach. Iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed by the body – boost absorption by pairing iron-rich foods with ones high in vitamin C.

Help! I Don’t Cook. Can I Still Have a Healthy Prenatal Diet?

You don’t have to cook your own meals to have a healthy pregnancy diet. “It can be as easy as fresh avocado, baby carrots, hummus, and whole wheat pita bread - or quickly sautéing some chicken and picking up some steamed veggies and brown rice from the local Chinese restaurant.” say Brown. She also suggests that you stock your freezer with easy-to-make, healthy eats like wild salmon filets, turkey burgers, and veggies.

Whenever possible, try and stay away from packaged and processed foods. And when it comes to bottled drinks and canned goods, limit your exposure of those that contain BPA (bisphenol-A). BPA is a toxic chemical that may be harmful to a developing fetus.

Are There Any Pregnancy “Super Foods” I Can Eat?

Brown recommends loading up on these nutrient-rich miracle foods to support baby’s growth and development.


Fish: Low in fat, high in protein, and nutrient-dense, fish should be a staple of every pregnancy diet. Just steer clear of high mercury fish like tuna, tile fish, and king mackerel. For the gastronomically adventurous, try sardines - they're high in omega 3 fatty acids, calcium and protein. If sardines aren’t your speed, wild salmon is another great option. 

Greek Yogurt: Packed with more protein than regular yogurt and loaded with calcium, greek yogurt is as delicious as it is nutritious.

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables: Most veggies and fruits pack a powerful nutrient punch but dark green leafy vegetables offer an unbeatable source of folate, phytonutrients, fiber, and calcium.

Quinoa: Chockfull of B vitamins, fiber, phytonutrients, and protein, quinoa is a grain super star.


Should I Only Eat Organic?

Most newly pregnant mamas starting thinking twice about what they’re putting into their bodies. And many wonder about the safety of conventional produce. What does the research say? Three recent studies concluded that children that have exposure to high levels of common pesticides in the womb have lower I.Q. scores than their peers by the time they reach school-age.  Alexandra Zissu, co-author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy, explains that by eating organic “a mom is minimizing her exposure to harmful and potentially harmful chemical residues in her food.”


But eating organic can be expensive and it isn’t an option for everyone. If going totally organic isn’t possible, try limiting your intake of conventional produce that are on the ‘dirty dozen’ list – these fruits and vegetables have high levels of pesticides. “If you find an all organic diet too expensive,” says Zissu, “I'd say to make sure you at least are eating organic/local/careful for meat, fish, and dairy.” Zissu also recommends green markets as an inexpensive alternative to store-bought organic. “Ask questions and you might discover your local farmer isn't certified organic but isn't spraying harsh pesticides or fertilizers either, and just hasn't gone through with the expense of organic certification.” says Zissu.

What Should I Eat to Control My Gestational Diabetes?

The risks associated with gestational diabetes (GD) are many — miscarriages, preeclampsia, birth defects, and macrosomia (also known as big baby syndrome) but the majority of women who have GD go on to deliver healthy babies. If you have GD, healthy eating habits are a must. The American Diabetes Association recommends nutritional counseling from a registered dietitian to plan a pregnancy diet that takes into account your glucose intolerance, your food preferences, your weight, and other factors.  The key to maintaining yours and your baby’s health is controlling your blood sugar. The National Institutes of Health advises women with GD to work with a health care provider to plan an appropriate diet but offers these tips for keeping your blood sugar in a healthy range:


Eat meals and snacks on a regular schedule. Researchers recommend three small-to-medium sized meals and two-to-four snacks a day.

Eat smaller amounts of carbohydrates at each meal. Spreading out your carb intake will limit post-meal blood sugar spikes and keep you on an even keel.

Have a nightly snack. Nosh on a snack of one-to-two servings of carbs before bedtime to keep blood sugar at a healthy level overnight.

More from The Bump:

Healthy Foods for Busy Moms-to-Be 

Your Pregnancy Diet: A Starter's Shopping List 

Pregnancy Nutrition and Exercise

By Kelly Alfieri