Pregnancy is an exciting time for most women, but many women are also filled with questions as they want to do all the right things for their growing baby. Nutrition is an important element of pregnancy beginning before conception and continuing until after the baby is born. Here you’ll find helpful tips to ensure you understand all you need to when it comes to nutrition and your pregnancy–before, during, and after.
Important Nutrients Prior to and During Pregnancy
The following nutrients are essential to women both prior to conception and throughout the pregnancy.
- Folic acid. Begin taking folic acid before you get pregnant to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Leafy green vegetables, fortified cereal, and supplements are excellent sources of folic acid.
- Calcium. Calcium helps your growing baby have strong bones and teeth. If you don’t consume enough calcium, the baby will take what is needed from you, leaving you with a calcium deficit. Get calcium from milk, cheese, spinach, and fortified juice and cereal.
- Iron. During pregnancy, your need for iron doubles as your blood volume expands to accommodate you and your baby’s need for blood to carry oxygen as well as the blood needs for your baby’s entire system. Many care providers recommend starting iron supplements prior to conception. In addition to supplements, get iron from lean red meat, poultry (especially dark meat), spinach, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin A. Vitamin A helps form healthy skin and eyes as well as supports bone growth for your developing baby. Get Vitamin A from carrots, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens.
- Vitamin C. Not only is Vitamin C important to help you and your baby have healthy skin, gums, teeth, and bones, but it also helps you absorb iron and fight infection.
- Vitamin B12. Deficiencies in vitamin B12 has been shown to reduce the ability to conceive as well as cause birth defects. Most women are not at risk of this problem, but strict vegetarians or vegans should ensure they are getting enough B12 in their diet B12 typically comes from meat, fish, poultry, and milk products.
- Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 helps form red blood cells as well as helps your body better use the proteins, fat, and carbohydrates you are supplying. There are also studies that indicate that taking vitamin B6 can help promote conception and combat morning sickness.
- Fluoride. When your baby’s teeth begin to form (in your first trimester around 10 weeks), you should consume some water fortified with fluoride to help your baby’s teeth develop. Kale is also a good source of fluoride.
- Manganese. Manganese helps process fat and carbohydrates and also helps promote healthy development of bones and the pancreas. Brown rice, whole-oat oatmeal, and black beans are excellent sources of manganese.
- Zinc. Foods high in protein often have lots of zinc. Try eating beef, turkey, crabmeat, chicken, and salmon for this mineral that helps your baby develop strong organs, nervous, skeletal, and circulatory systems.
- Potassium. Potassium helps maintain fluid and balance electrolytes during your pregnancy. Find your daily potassium from foods such as bananas, avocados, baked potato, mushrooms, and salmon.
- Choline. Choline has long been overlooked as an important nutritive element for pregnant women, but recently, the benefits have come to the attention of medical professionals. Expecting mothers who raise their choline intake through supplements or foods such as eggs, chicken and beef liver, shrimp, soybeans, potatoes, and lentils can feel assured they are helping with their baby’s brain development and reducing the chance for neural tube birth defects.
Tips for Prior to Pregnancy and the First Trimester
These suggestions will help you establish a firm nutritional foundation from the very beginning of your pregnancy.
- Balance. Before you get pregnant, get in the habit of eating a balanced, nutritious diet.
- Prenatal vitamins. Many doctors recommend taking a good-quality prenatal vitamin up to three months before conceiving and throughout the entire pregnancy to ensure you are getting the nutrients you and your baby need.
- Small meals. If you experience morning sickness during your first trimester, you may not feel like eating. Try eating small, frequent meals throughout the day. Many women report less sickness if they don’t have an empty stomach.
- Healthy snacks. Some foods may suddenly seem unappealing during the first trimester. Try eating healthy snacks throughout the day to ensure you are getting enough nourishment.
- Whole grains. Starting in your first trimester and going all the way through your pregnancy, whole grains are an excellent source of nutrition and can be easy to prepare.
- Water. Getting plenty of water each day is very important for your entire pregnancy. Water facilitates blood flow, flushes out your system, and replenishes the amniotic fluid. If you aren’t getting enough water, dehydration can lead to contractions and premature labor.
- Fiber. Constipation can be a problem during pregnancy as progesterone slows the digestions of food. Increasing your fiber intake can help combat this problem.
- Ginger. Foods containing ginger such as ginger snaps, ginger ale, crystallized ginger, and ginger tea have been used by many pregnant women to fight off morning sickness.
- Baked rather than fried. If you have an option, choose baked foods over fried foods to help reduce any indigestion you may be experiencing. Baked is a healthier choice, too.
Tips for the Second and Third Trimester
Learn important nutrition facts that will help you and your baby as the baby continues to develop and your nutritional needs shift.
- Weight Gain. Many women begin to get concerned about weight gain during their pregnancy, and especially as they begin to show during the second trimester. All pregnant women need to gain weight, usually between 25-35 pounds. During your second and third trimester, you should be averaging about one pound per week.
- Protein. Getting enough protein is essential in the second trimester as your baby’s organs finish their development and into the third trimester as the baby continues to grow. Lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, and nuts are excellent sources of protein.
- Leafy greens. If you weren’t able to boost your leafy greens during the first trimester, now is an excellent time to do so. Spinach, kale, and darker lettuces such as romaine and green leaf are full of vitamins and minerals you and your baby need.
- EFAs. Essential fatty acids are essential to fetal growth, so make sure you are eating foods high in EFAs such as salmon, tuna, walnuts, flax seed oil, egg yolks, and organ meats.
- Cravings. It’s okay to give in to those pregnancy cravings, even if they are for non-nutritious foods, just as long as the bulk of your diet is balanced and nutritious.
- Extra calories. During your second trimester, you will want to increase your daily calories by around 300-350 beyond what you normally eat. Plan your meals accordingly so that you are not over or under-eating.
- Gestational diabetes. Your care provider will likely test you for gestational diabetes during your second trimester. Eating correct portion sizes and nutritionally-balanced meals may help prevent any risk for GD.
- Help manage stretch marks. What you eat and drink can help control stretch marks. Eating a diet that is nutritionally balanced not only keeps your skin healthy, thus allowing it to repair itself more easily when stretched, but you will also control how much weight you gain, which can contribute to stretch marks. Drinking water will also help keep your skin hydrated to help keep stretch marks at bay.
- Cook ahead. On the days when you have more energy, cook some food for those days when you have little energy. Also, as you near the end of your pregnancy, build up a supply of frozen meals prepared in advance for those first few weeks with your newborn.
- Small meals–again. Just like in the first trimester, during the third trimester you may not be able to eat as much as your growing baby and uterus push against your stomach. Try eating smaller, more frequent meals to combat this problem.
- Help slow Braxton-Hicks contractions with tea. Some herbal teas such as those described here can help calm the uterus and help slow Braxton-Hicks contractions.
If you learn that you have gestational diabetes (GD), then follow these suggestions to ensure you get the proper nutrition for your special circumstances.
- Balance carbs with proteins. Your glycemic response to carbohydrates is slowed by eating proteins along with them. Be sure you get a good balance of proteins and carbs in your meals.
- Healthy proteins. Some of the healthy proteins you can include in your GD diet include meat, dairy products, fish, beans, eggs, and poultry.
- Limit how many carbs. You may have to limit the amount of carbs you are eating at one time with your meals. Keep your carb intake to around 30-45 grams per meal. Some recommend eating most of your carbs at lunch.
- Avoid sweets. Unlike non-pregnant diabetics, expectant moms with GD should strictly avoid any foods high in sugar.
- No fruit juices. The natural sugars in fruit juices can invoke the same response as drinks with added sugars, so avoid fruit juices.
- Fresh foods. Canned or processed foods frequently have hidden sugars in them, so stick with fresh foods.
- Eat at regular intervals. Eating at the same times every day (including snacks) can help keep your blood sugar levels more evenly regulated.
- Avoid fast foods. As a general rule, fast foods are less nutritious than those you prepare yourself. Avoid these fatty foods with little nutritive value.
- Raise intake of B vitamins. B vitamins help metabolize energy from food, so make sure you are getting adequate amounts of B vitamins for pregnant women.
- Lose weight after pregnancy. Those with gestational diabetes are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life. If you are overweight, try to lose weight and develop better eating habits to avoid developing type 2 diabetes.
- Consult a registered dietician. Find a registered dietician to help you develop a healthy eating plan to manage your GD. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, make sure you find a dietician who specializes in these types of diets.
Special Diets or Health Concerns
Whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, have food allergies or intolerances, or experience anemia during your pregnancy, these articles and tips will help provide you with important information.
- Pregnancy and the Vegan Diet. This article offers tips, suggestions, and guidelines for following a vegan diet healthily during your pregnancy.
- Have Confidence in Your Wholesome Vegan Pregnancy. Find nutrition tips as well as encouragement to continue with your vegan diet through pregnancy.
- Vegan Pregnancy – My Own True Story. This woman recounts the steps she took to ensure her babies were healthy while following a vegan diet during her pregnancies.
- Nutrition During Pregnancy for Vegetarians. An excellent resource for pregnant vegetarians, this article offers goals for healthy vegetarian eating as well as examples and portion sizes.
- Vegetarian Diets for Pregnancy. find the nutrients you need while pregnant and plenty of vegetarian options to meet these requirements here.
- Food Allergies and Pregnancy. This comprehensive article covers food allergies and suggestions for their management during pregnancy.
- Cow Dairy Alternatives. This article offers alternatives to cow milk for those with cow dairy sensitivities.
- Fertility and Pregnancy in Women with Celiac Disease. Learn why it is important for pregnant women with celiac disease to stay on a gluten-free diet while pregnant in this article.
- Pregnancy and Celiac Disease. Learn helpful tips and information for managing celiac disease during pregnancy.
- Lactose intolerance. Unlike a dairy allergy, those who are lactose intolerant cannot process the lactose in milk products, resulting in gastrointestinal problems. Read this article from Suite 101 to find tips for pregnancy women with lactose intolerance.
- Anemia. Anemia can develop in pregnant women who do not have enough iron. Supplements can help, but eating foods rich in iron such as lean red meats, organ meats, spinach and other leafy greens, egg yolks, and broccoli will also help.
What to Limit or Avoid
These foods and drinks should be limited or avoided during your pregnancy. Find out what is and is not safe for you and your baby here.
- Alcohol. Studies have not been able to prove that any amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy, so it is best to eliminate alcohol completely to avoid such problems as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders that can affect your baby’s development.
- Tobacco. Women who stop smoking before they conceive or early on in their pregnancy raise the chances of delivering their baby without help problems. Babies born to moms who smoke typically have low birth weight, come prematurely, and have an increased risk of dying of SIDS.
- Drugs. While avoiding illegal drugs seems to be a given, there are also many prescription and over-the-counter drugs you should avoid while pregnant. Consult with your doctor or midwife about what drugs may be safe to take while pregnant.
- Caffeine. While there is some controversy over the safety of caffeine during pregnancy, it is generally thought safer to avoid caffeine while pregnant, especially in the first trimester.
- Seafood. Eating seafood while pregnant is important because of the iron and protein you gain. Some types of fish and seafood contain more mercury than others, and these foods should be avoided. Salmon, catfish, canned tuna, and shrimp are considered safe while larger, predatory fish should be avoided.
- Unpasteurised milk or soft cheeses. These types of dairy products can cause pregnant women to get listeriosis, an illness caused by the Listeria bacteria which can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Soft cheeses include feta, Brie, blue-veined cheeses, and soft Mexican cheeses such as queso fresco.
- Prepared meats. Hot dogs and prepared lunch meats also carry a risk of the bacteria Listeria, so avoid these foods unless they have been reheated to a temperature of 160 degrees or they are steaming.
- Non-food items. Some women experience an overwhelming desire to eat non-food items during pregnancy such as clay, dirt, ice, and laundry starch. This is called PICA and is a serious disorder that can affect your nutritional intake. Contact your care provider for help if you experience this urge.
- Raw and undercooked meats. Raw and undercooked meats and seafoods can lead to toxoplasmosis, salmonella, and other illnesses. Avoid uncooked sushi and ensure your meats are cooked to the proper temperature.
- Raw eggs. Avoid raw eggs and the foods that may contain them such as Caesar salad dressing, mayonnaise, homemade ice cream, and Hollandaise sauce as they could contain salmonella.
- Unwashed fruits and vegetables. Toxoplasmosis can contaminate the soil where fruits and vegetables are grown, so always make sure your fruits and vegetables are thoroughly washed prior to eating them.
After the birth of your baby, you will still need to maintain good nutritional habits. Find plenty of postpartum tips below.
- Keep it simple. You will need to keep your energy up after giving birth, but learning how to juggle a new baby, sleep, and eat can be difficult. Check out the Healthy and Quick Food Ideas section below for simple, yet nutritious ideas to feed yourself healthily.
- Accept the generosity of friends and family. If your friends and family want to bring you food, accept their offers. Be sure to let them know of any dietary restrictions you may have. Typically people understand your needs and are willing to customize the food they bring.
- Stop to eat. While it may be tempting to grab a quick snack while taking care of your new baby, instead, take the time to stop and eat while the baby is napping or when you have an extra set of hands to help you.
- Maintain high fiber intake. Constipation is common after giving birth and maintaining a fiber-rich diet will help ease any discomfort. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are a good source of fiber.
- Stick with your nutrition habits from pregnancy. If you picked up healthier eating habits during pregnancy, stick with them to ensure you lose the pregnancy weight in a healthy manner and so you can maintain good health for years to come.
- Prenatal vitamins. Usually, you can stop taking your prenatal vitamins after giving birth. If, however, you wish to continue, you may do so for six weeks after giving birth.
- Iron. If you lost a lot of blood during the delivery, you may need to continue with a diet high in iron. Also, avoid drinking black tea as it can slow the absorption of iron.
- Drink 8-10 glasses of water. Most experts agree that after giving birth you should continue with a strong intake of water to help your body stay hydrated and heal.
- Coconut water. Coconut water helps balance electrolytes, helps with edema–common during pregnancy and after giving birth, and helps relieve constipation.
- Go organic. Organic foods and meat and eggs from free-range animals are more nutrient-dense and don’t have the harmful pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones associated with non-organic foods.
- Avoid refined sugars and flours. Reducing refined sugars and flours can help reduce mood swings and allows you to eat more nutrient-dense foods.
If you decide to breastfeed your baby, then it is important that you understand the nutritional needs for both you and your baby. Follow these suggestions for the health of both you and your baby.
- 500 extra calories. Breastfeeding requires that you eat 500 calories a day beyond what you were eating while pregnant. Make sure these extra calories are full of good nutrition and not empty calories from processed or fast food.
- Lose 3-4 pounds per month. Breastfeeding burns calories, but a safe weight loss after 6 weeks postpartum is about 3-4 pounds per month so that it does not affect your milk supply.
- Protein and calcium. It is important to keep eating foods high in protein and calcium several times a day to ensure both you and your baby are getting the proper nutrition.
- Drink water each time you nurse. Every time you sit down to nurse your baby, have a bottle of water handy so that you can keep yourself hydrated.
- Eat several meals throughout the day. Five meals a day rather than three is often recommended for breastfeeding mothers as they need to keep caloric intake regular to produce milk efficiently.
- Limit alcohol. It takes about one hour for alcohol to pass through your body, so if you do drink a glass of wine or beer, make sure you arrange it so that you have plenty of time before your baby is ready to eat again.
- No smoking. Smoking passes on health risks to your baby as well as the risk of SIDS. Smoking can also affect your milk supply and ability to breastfeed. If you cannot quit smoking, at least try to cut down and smoke away from your baby.
- Skip the "extras". Pass on the foods with added sugar and solid fats such is found in desserts, fried foods, and fatty meats as these types of food contribute little to your nutrition and can prevent healthy weight loss.
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine can build up in your baby’s body and result in irritability and problems sleeping.
- Keep up the EFAs. Just like during your pregnancy, EFAs are important to your baby’s developing brain. Your baby’s brain will triple in size in the first year of life, so help fuel that growth with nuts, leafy greens, and salmon.
- Limit artificial sweeteners. There is some controversy over the safety of artificial sweeteners for nursing moms. Play it safe and avoid or cut-back on artificial sweeteners.
- Vitamins C and A. These vitamins are depleted quickly while breastfeeding, so be sure to keep eating foods high in these vitamins such as oranges, strawberries, broccoli, kale, carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.
Healthy and Quick Food Ideas
Whether you are pregnant or are adjusting to life with a new baby, the following foods make excellent quick and healthy snacks and meals.
- String cheese. Get calcium and protein from these snacks that are easy to grab anytime you need a snack.
- Yogurt. Yogurt has protein, calcium, fiber, and has been shown to help with the absorption of folic acid, so grab some yogurt for a fast, nutritious snack or part of a meal.
- Fruit cups. Make these yourself to take on the go or grab from the refrigerator or buy the prepackaged ones in their own juices without extra sugars or preservatives.
- Sliced or steamed veggies. Sliced or steamed veggies can be prepared quickly with little effort and are an excellent, nutritious way to feed yourself when your energy is waning.
- Raisins. This simple snack is healthy and easy to reach when you need a quick bite.
- Trail mix. Make your own or buy one with no additives to have a healthy snack that will fill you up and offer great nutrition.
- Soy milk. Especially if you have dairy problems, calcium-fortified soy milk is a great source of calcium and soy itself is a good source of zinc and iron.
- Calcium-fortified orange juice. Get your vitamin C and calcium in this nutritious drink you can take on the go with convenient individual servings.
- Cottage cheese. High in calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and choline, cottage cheese is a healthy food that is easy to serve with fruit for a fast meal or snack.
- Energy bars. Energy bars are a good way to get lots of vitamins and minerals into a simple snack.
- Smoothies. Prepare some smoothies ahead of time and store them in the freezer to take out when you need a quick meal.
- Dried fruit and nuts. A handful of almonds or other nuts and a few dried apricots is a hearty snack filled with great nutrition that requires absolutely no preparation.