Diet for a healthy pregnancy
In this article
How food reaches your baby
A 3D look at how food reaches your baby.
Should I eat differently now I’m pregnant?
As a mom-to-be, it is important to eat well. This will make sure you get all the nutrients that both you and your developing baby need. Try to make healthy choices and do the best you can. Your baby will get what it needs first, so your long-term health could suffer if you are making poor choices.
If you know you haven’t been eating as well as you could, it is even more important to start having nutritious, well-balanced meals. Your daily meals should include a variety of foods from the four main food groups shown in the Canada Food Guide:
- Fruits and vegetables. You can buy these fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced. Aim for seven to eight servings each day.
- Starchy food. These include bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Try to choose wholegrain options. Aim for six to seven servings per day.
- Foods rich in protein. These include lean meat and chicken, fish, eggs and legumes (such as beans and lentils). Try to aim for at least two servings a day and at least two portions of fish a week, especially oily fish.
- Dairy foods. These include milk, cheese and yogurt, which contain calcium. Aim for at least two servings per day.
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Do I need to eat more now I’m pregnant?
Your body becomes more efficient when you’re pregnant, and makes even better use of the energy you get from your food. This means you don’t actually need any extra calories for the first three months of pregnancy. If your pre-pregnancy weight was in the normal range then you will need about 340 extra calories a day while you are in your second trimester, and then 452 extra calories a day when you are in your third trimester.
Your appetite is your best guide to how much food you need to eat. You may find your appetite fluctuates throughout your pregnancy:
- In the first few weeks, your appetite may fall away dramatically and you may not feel like eating proper meals, especially if you have nausea or sickness.
- During the middle part of your pregnancy your appetite may be the same as before you were pregnant or slightly increased.
- Towards the end of your pregnancy your appetite will probably increase. If you suffer from heartburn or a full feeling after eating you may find it helpful to have small, frequent meals.
The best advice to remember is to eat when you are hungry. Have a good balance of foods every day and you will gain weight steadily as your baby grows.
Should I take any vitamin supplements?
In an ideal world, free of morning sickness or food aversions, a balanced diet would be all you’d ever need. But a prenatal vitamin-mineral supplement may be good insurance to make sure you’re getting the right nutrients.
Further to this, it is recommended that you take 400 mcg folic acid throughout your pregnancy (and as soon as you decide you plan to get pregnant, in fact). You may also consider taking vitamin D throughout your pregnancy. Speak to your doctor or midwife about their recommendations. Finally, some women need to take iron pills at some point in their pregnancy. Your iron levels will be checked during your pregnancy, and your doctor or midwife will advise you about your needs.
Calcium is also important while you’re pregnant, and you should aim to have about 1000mg a day or the equivalent of 2 cups of milk, a cup of cooked broccoli, a cup of almonds, or a cup of canned salmon with the bones.
You could take a special pregnancy multivitamin that contains folic acid, vitamin D, iron and calcium. Look for one that also contains vitamin C, vitamin D, B vitamins such as B6 and B12, potassium, zinc and vitamin E. Health Canada’s recommendation on this is that you can get most of the nutrients you need from that healthy diet, but that you look for a supplement containing the recommended daily level of folic acid.
Don’t take any vitamins which contain retinol, the animal form of vitamin A. In large quantities, this can be toxic to unborn babies (EVM 2003) . However, the plant-based carotene type of vitamin A is safe in pregnancy (EVM 2003) . Also don’t take megadoses of vitamins and minerals, as this could be harmful to your baby.
Talk to your doctor or midwife about special vitamins you might need if you:
- are a strict vegetarian or vegan
- have diabetes or gestational diabetes
- have pre-eclampsia
- have anemia
- have had a baby with a low birth weight before
Are there any foods I shouldn’t eat during pregnancy?
There are some foods that you’ll have to steer clear of during pregnancy, because they could be unsafe for your baby:
- Cheeses made with unpasteurized milk such as brie and camembert, and blue-veined cheeses. All these cheeses could contain listeria, a bacteria that could harm your baby.
- Avo > (HC 2010)
- Raw seafood, such as oysters, or sushi. (FSA n.d.a)
- Frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and escolar. These fish contain unsafe levels of naturally occurring mercury (HC 2009) . Canned white or albacore tuna contains some mercury too, so it’s best you don’t eat more than 300 grams per week.
- Don’t eat liver and liver products (such as pate or liver sausage), because they may contain large amounts of the retinol form of vitamin A. Too much of this could be harmful to your developing baby (FSA n.d.b) .
- You should stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
- (SOGC 2010)
- It’s best not to have more than 300mg of caffeine a day. That’s three mugs of coffee or four cups of tea or seven cans of cola a day (PHAC 2008) . You could switch to decaffeinated drinks, instead.
Can I go on a diet?
Dieting during pregnancy could harm you and your developing baby. Some diets can leave you low on iron, folic acid, and other important vitamins and minerals.
Remember, weight gain is one of the most positive signs that you’re having a healthy pregnancy. So if you’re eating fresh, wholesome foods and gaining weight, just relax. You’re supposed to be getting bigger!
If you are overweight, you can improve your diet by cutting out foods high in fat and sugar and getting some exercise. However, see your doctor first for advice before changing how much you eat or doing more exercise.
What’s a healthy way to put on weight?
It’s best to gain weight gradually.
Bear in mind that weight gain varies among women, and how much weight you put on during your pregnancy depends on many factors. (PHAC 2010) So concentrate on eating a healthy diet of plenty of starchy carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, protein, and milk and dairy foods, and just a little in the way of fats and sugars.
When you put on weight may be as important as the amount you put on. You may gain the least weight during the first trimester. Your weight should then steadily increase throughout the second trimester, and you may put on the most weight over the third trimester, when your baby is growing the most.
How many meals should I eat?
Even if you’re not hungry, chances are your baby is, so try to eat regularly. Aim for three meals and two to three healthy snacks in between. And if morning (or all-day) sickness, food aversions, heartburn, or indigestion make eating a chore, eat less but more often. You may find that eating five or six small meals is easier on your body.
Eating high-fibre and wholegrain foods will help to keep you feeling full, and will be more nutritious, too.
Is it all right to have occasional treats?
You don’t have to give up all your favourite foods just because you’re pregnant. But foods and snacks high in fat, salt and sugar shouldn’t be the main part of your diet, either.
So as far as snacks are concerned, try a banana rather than chips or canned fruit in juice rather than ice cream. But don’t feel guilty if you crave the occasional cookie. Enjoy every bite!
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DH. 2009. The pregnancy book: Chapter 3 Your health in pregnancy. www.dh.gov.uk [pdf file, accessed November 2010]
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FSA. n.d.b. Eat well be well: When you’re pregnant. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwell.gov.uk [Accessed November 2010]
FSA. 2009. Peanuts during pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood. www.food.gov.uk [Accessed November 2010]
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HC. 2010. Prenatal nutrition guidelines for professionals – Folate contributes to a healthy pregnancy. Health Canada. www.hc-sc.gc.ca [pdf file, accessed April 2016]
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Weng X, Odouli R, Li D-K. 2008. Maternal caffeine consumption during pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage: a prospective cohort study. Am J Obstet Gynecol 198(23):297