Healthy Pregnancy Foods
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Even if you’re already packing an alphabet’s worth of vitamins and minerals into your daily meals, you might still worry that you’re not quite hitting the healthy pregnancy diet mark — especially if your appetite hasn’t quite gotten up to speed yet.
Enter these nutritional superstars. When it comes to the best foods to eat when pregnant, try to reach for picks that pack plenty of nutrients into just a few bites and not much in the way of empty calories. This will help you and your baby get the vitamins and minerals you both need. (Though the occasional cookie or ice cream cone is just fine, so don’t feel bad about treating yourself from time to time!)
Nutrient-dense items are especially effective when efficiency is a priority, as when you're nauseous, gaining weight too quickly or not gaining quickly enough.
Speaking of nutrients, while all are important right now, the best foods for pregnancy are high in vitamins and minerals that play a key role in supporting your baby’s growth and development, including:
- Folic acid. Getting at least 600 micrograms per day during pregnancy reduces the risk for neural tube defects.
- Iron. You need nearly twice as much iron during pregnancy, or 27 milligrams daily. The mineral is used to make more blood that carries oxygen to your baby.
- Calcium. Aim for 1,000 milligrams daily. Calcium is key to help your baby build strong bones, teeth, muscles and nerves.
- Vitamin D. It helps calcium do its job and keeps your immune system strong. You should get 600 IU daily.
- DHA. An omega-3 fatty acid, DHA plays a role in your baby’s brain and eye development. You need 200 to 300 milligrams per day.
- Iodine. The mineral promotes your baby’s brain and nervous system development. You should get 290 micrograms daily.
Keeping track of your nutritional needs during pregnancy can feel like a big job, but picking the right foods can help you cover more of your bases. (Along with taking a prenatal vitamin, of course.) So make an effort to keep these pregnancy superfoods on hand — and make them mainstays of your daily menus.
The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of every cell in both your body and your baby's. High-protein foods also keep your hunger at bay by stabilizing your blood sugar, which is why you should aim for three servings (that's about 75 grams) of protein per day.
That makes lean meat one of the best foods to eat during pregnancy. In addition to being protein-packed, it’s also high in iron, critical to help your baby develop his red blood cell supply and support yours, too (blood volume increases when you’re pregnant, which is why anemia during pregnancy is so common). Iron also plays a role in baby's brain development.
How to eat it: Lean beef cuts like round, sirloin, chuck, and loin; ground beef with less than 15 percent fat; pork tenderloin or loin chop; poultry like chicken and turkey; and lamb leg, arm or loin all fit the bill. A little goes a long way, so add your favorite cut to veggie-filled soups, salads and rice or noodle dishes. Finally, remember to cook your meat thoroughly. An internal temperature of 160 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit is high enough to kill illness-causing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.
Whether you’re a meat eater or not, this vegetarian protein source deserves a place on your plate. A cup of cooked lentils packs around 17 grams of protein, along with about 7 milligrams of iron.
Lentils are also rich in the B vitamin folate (called folic acid in supplements), which is vital to forming your baby's brain and nervous system and has a powerful protective effect against neural-tube defects like spina bifida, a birth disorder in which a spine does not form properly. Lentils are also high in fiber, which can keep your digestive system humming along and help stave off pregnancy-related constipation.
How to eat them: To top it all off, lentils are easy to cook and can work in almost any dish. Try firm French or black lentils in salads, use softer brown lentils in place of chickpeas in your favorite hummus recipe or make a thick, stew-like soup with creamy, quick-cooking red lentils.
Your baby needs a steady supply of calcium for his growing bones, and you need it to keep yours strong and help your nerves and muscles function. Three to four servings of dairy foods can help you meet your daily calcium needs, and yogurt is one of your best bets.
Cup for cup, it contains as much calcium as milk — plus it’s packed with protein and folate. The active cultures (i.e., good bacteria) in yogurt can also help prevent stomach upset as well as yeast infections (which are more common in pregnancy).
But not all yogurts fall into a healthy pregnancy diet. Plain varieties are a better choice than flavored ones, since they’re free of added sugars and make it easier to keep your calorie intake in check.
How to eat it: Try a drizzle of honey or chopped fresh fruit to sweeten it up, if you’d like. Aside from eating it from the cup or bowl, you can add yogurt to smoothies, layer it with granola to make a creamy-crunchy parfait or use it in place of sour cream or mayo in dips, dressings or baked goods.
The fatty fish earns its rep for being one of the best foods to eat while pregnant. Cold-water fish like salmon are packed with DHA omega-3s, which are essential for a number of reasons: the body can’t make them on its own; they help metabolize fat-soluble vitamins like A and E; they may help reduce the risk of prenatal depression; and they’re critical for the development of your baby’s eyes and brain (both the brain and retina are primarily composed of DHA). Salmon, too, is a good source of iodine.
As for concerns about mercury? Salmon is a safe seafood choice for pregnancy, so feel free to enjoy 8 to 12 ounces (two to three servings) a week. (Sardines and herring are other good choices.) Stick with wild salmon over farmed when possible.
How to eat it: Try roasting salmon filets and serving them over greens or rice. Enjoy alongside a sweet potato and steamed veggies, or pile flaked salmon on top of whole grain bowls or salads.
The creamy green fruit is full of folate, along with vitamin B6, which promotes healthy tissue and brain growth for baby and could help ease morning sickness for you.
It’s also a yummy source of healthy monounsaturated fats, which help your body better absorb many of the vitamins found in fruits and veggies. Avocado’s high fat content can keep you fuller longer, so you’re less likely to get hit with that hangry, need-to-eat-now feeling.
How to eat it: You probably know avocado is a must for guacamole, but that’s not all it's good for. Try using mashed avocado in place of cheese or mayo in sandwiches, or adding diced avocado to a salad.
You might know that the cooked soybean pods are a tasty source of vegetarian protein, serving up 18 grams per cup shelled. But they're rich in other important pregnancy nutrients, too. A cup of edamame offers up nearly 100 milligrams of calcium, 3.5 milligrams of iron and 482 micrograms of folate.
How to eat them: Best of all, they’re easy to cook (the frozen pods can be steamed or microwaved in just a few minutes) and highly versatile. Top edamame with sea salt for a quick, satisfying snack, puree them with lemon juice and olive oil to make a creamy spread, or throw them into salads for a fast protein boost.
Talk about small but mighty. Nuts are chock-full of important vitamins and minerals like magnesium, zinc, potassium and vitamin E, along with protein, fiber and healthy fats. Plus, they’re easily portable, making them an ideal on-the-go pregnancy snack.
Are certain types better than others? All nuts have their own unique nutritional profiles — and they can all fit into a healthy pregnancy diet. But some might be especially worth reaching for. Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, while almonds deliver a welcome dose of calcium. And peanuts? They’re loaded with folate. (Who knew?)
Even though they’re high in fat, it’s mostly the healthy kind. Help yourself to plenty if you’re gaining weight slowly, and have just a moderate portion (a handful or so) if you’re gaining quicker.
How to eat them: Use nuts to add flavorful crunch to oatmeal or yogurt, or grind them and use in place of breadcrumbs for chicken or fish dishes.
Their bright orange color means that carrots are crammed with beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. And that nutrient is critical for your baby’s developing eyes, skin and organs.
How to eat them: In addition to munching on the go, try shredding carrots and folding them into pancakes, muffins or quick bread batters. Or steam and mash them with a little bit of butter and cinnamon, just like sweet potatoes.
Red bell peppers
These veggies are a top source of vitamin C and A, plus fiber to keep things moving. Another big benefit? Research has found that eating a vegetable-rich diet during pregnancy could help reduce the risk for complications like high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
How to eat them: Take advantage of their crunchy texture the next time you get a craving for crispy pretzels or chips. When dunked into hummus, ranch dressing or even plain yogurt for a snack, they’re sure to hit the spot.
Stomach doing flips at the thought of veggies? Good news: Mangoes are another great way to get your fill of vitamins like A and C.
How to eat them: Use fresh diced mango in a zippy salsa that’s tasty on top of fish or chicken, or blend the frozen cubes with yogurt for a sweet-tart smoothie.
You probably know that eggs are an inexpensive, easy-to-cook source of protein — a single large egg delivers 6 grams of the nutrient. But that’s not all. Eggs are one of the few food sources of vitamin D, serving up 44 IU per large one.
Vitamin D plays a key role in helping calcium build strong bones and teeth for your baby, as well as keeping your immune system in fighting form. What’s more, getting enough of the nutrient may help to reduce the risk for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and low birth weight, findings suggest.
How to eat them: If you’re looking for ideas beyond the usual scramble, you’ve got plenty to choose from. Pile a poached egg on top of a grain and veggie bowl or salad, or sprinkle sliced hard-boiled eggs with everything bagel seasoning and enjoy as a snack. Just be sure to cook eggs thoroughly — until they’re firm and no longer runny — to avoid getting sick from Salmonella.
The leafy green is always a good choice, and it’s a particularly potent pregnancy superfood. Kale serves up folate, iron, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K and fiber — all in a tasty package that can be enjoyed in a million different ways.
How to eat it: Try swapping kale for basil in your favorite pesto recipe and tossing it with pasta or slathering it on a sandwich, or swirling it into scrambled eggs.
Getting the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day can help you feel fuller longer and keep uncomfortable pregnancy constipation at bay. And good news: A cup of cooked oatmeal serves more than 4 grams.
More good news? That same cup also delivers more than 30 percent of your daily magnesium, another mineral that plays a key role helping your baby build healthy bones and teeth.
How to eat it: Not a fan of hot oatmeal for breakfast? Try grinding oats in a food processor to make a flour and using it in place of all-purpose flour in your favorite baked goods.
They’re a tasty source of energy when you get hit with that urge to eat something, anything, ASAP. Plus, they’re easy on your stomach even when you’re feeling queasy.
Bananas are also rich in potassium, a mineral that plays a key role in promoting healthy blood pressure. They might even help you manage annoying pregnancy bloat, since potassium helps your body release puff-promoting minerals like sodium through your urine.
How to eat it: If a banana by itself doesn’t cut it for a snack, try piling sliced bananas on top of a piece of peanut butter toast. Or toss frozen banana chunks in the food processor to make a delicious — and surprisingly creamy — dairy-free ice cream.
A single sweet potato serves up more than 400 percent of the vitamin A that you need in a day. That’s especially important during your first trimester, when your baby’s cells are dividing at rapid speed to become different organ and body parts. (While vitamin A is important during pregnancy, steer clear of supplements, since getting megadoses of the nutrient could increase the risk for birth defects.)
How to eat them: Try roasting sliced sweet potatoes to make oven fries, or create a meal-in-a-bowl by topping a halved baked sweet potato with cooked beans, shredded cheese and diced avocado.
If quinoa wasn’t a part of your pre-pregnancy diet, it’s worth adding to the menu now. The whole grain (which is technically a seed) delivers 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and nearly 3 grams of iron per cooked cup, along with small amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
How to eat it: Best of all, quinoa cooks up in less than 20 minutes. Try mixing it with roasted sweet potato cubes and black beans for a tasty burrito filling, or cook it in milk to make an oatmeal-style porridge for breakfast.
You know it’s chock-full of calcium to strengthen your baby’s bones and teeth — a single glass serves up about a third of what you need in a day. But milk also delivers vitamin D, iodine and plenty of protein — around 8 grams per cup.
How to eat it: If the idea of guzzling a glass of milk isn’t all that appealing, there are other ways to work it into your pregnancy diet. Use milk in a fruit smoothie, or pour fruit and milk smoothies into popsicle molds to make cool, creamy ice pops.
Figs, dates, prunes and dried apricots are quick, concentrated sources of energy when you can feel your blood sugar starting to drop. And the natural candy-like flavor is a better option than actual candy when your sweet tooth strikes.
Even better? Dried fruit is a surprisingly valuable source of nutrients like fiber, iron, calcium, potassium, plus antioxidants. Just keep in mind that a little goes a long way — dried fruit is higher in calories than fresh, so pay attention to your portions and be sure to seek out varieties made without added sugars.
How to eat it: Pair a handful of dried fruit with a handful of nuts for a satisfying snack, or stir chopped dried fruit into yogurt. Or enjoy it as a healthy dessert: Try stuffing dates with peanut butter or almond butter, or dunking dried apricots into melted dark chocolate.
Okay, it’s technically not a food. But H20 is key for a healthy pregnancy diet, so make it a point to drink eight to 10 8-ounce glasses per day.
Why is water so important? It plays a key role in delivering nutrients to your baby and helping her body make new cells. Staying hydrated is important for you, too. Getting enough water is one of the best ways to stave off constipation during pregnancy. Plus, dehydration can increase the risk for early labor.
All of these big benefits mean that you should make it a point to sip regularly, so fill up a water bottle and carry it wherever you go. If guzzling leaves you uncomfortably full, take small sips throughout the day.
Foods to avoid during pregnancy
While we’re on the subject of the best foods to eat when pregnant, remember that there are some items that should be taken off the menu. Certain foods are more likely to harbor bacteria or chemicals that could make you sick, so you should steer clear until after giving birth.
For the time being, you’ll want to take a break from:
- Unpasteurized juice
- Unpasteurized cheese
- Raw seafood
- Rare meat
- Hot dogs and deli meats
- Raw eggs
- High-mercury fish like swordfish, king mackerel, orange roughy, bigeye tuna and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
- Raw sprouts
It’s normal to worry that your pregnancy diet isn’t quite hitting the mark. But sticking with good-for-you foods — especially ones rich in key nutrients like folate, protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, DHA and iodine — and limiting empty-calorie snacks will help you and baby get the nourishment you both need.
And if at any point during your pregnancy you’re concerned that you're not getting enough of certain vitamins or minerals, talk with your practitioner. Together, you can determine where you might be falling short and how to fill the gaps.
This article is a reprint from the What to Expect editorial team and Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You're Expecting. Health information on this site is based on peer-reviewed medical journals and highly respected health organizations and institutions including ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), as well as the What to Expect books by Heidi Murkoff.