Tips for a healthy diet when pregnant

When you are pregnant, what you eat is what your baby eats. As the quality of your food takes on heightened importance during pregnancy, it’s also important to know that you may have to eat more healthy foods than what you’re used to.

However, eating well during pregnancy is not altogether different from eating well at other times in your life, but you do have to keep in mind some specific nutritional considerations that can have a larger effect on your baby—and you—during pregnancy.

Here’s some good general dietary advice when you are expecting: Try to incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods into your diet.

Nutrient-dense foods are those that provide the most nutrition for the least number of calories. Fruits and vegetables are great examples of nutrient-dense foods (See list below).

Nutrient-dense foods

Fruits & Vegetable

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Seaweed
  • Asparagus
  • Artichokes
  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots
  • Red bell peppers
  • Parsley
  • Garlic
  • Avocados
  • Berries
  • Dark leafy greens (kale, collards, spinach)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) 

Legumes & Seeds

  • Chia, flax, hemp
  • Red lentils 

Meat, Poultry & Fish

  • Wild Alaskan salmon
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Sardines
  • Liver
  • Pasture-raised eggs

To incorporate these foods into your daily diet, have at least 1 non-starchy vegetable at each meal and make fruit or a starchy vegetable your carbohydrate of choice for both meals and snacks. Starchy vegetables include potatoes, peas, corn, winter squash, and pumpkin, while most other vegetables are considered non-starchy.

If it’s difficult to make it to the grocery store for fresh produce, keep frozen vegetables and fruit on hand. Some people are surprised to learn that frozen options can be just as nutritious as fresh produce (and sometimes even more so)!

What to avoid eating when pregnant

While increasing your intake of nutrient-dense foods, you also want to limit your intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—these typically provide more calories from sugar and unhealthy fats.

A good tip to identify processed foods is: If it’s packaged, it’s most likely processed.

Choosing whole foods that don’t come in a package is one of the best ways to avoid processed foods.

Instead of eating refined carbohydrates (anything made with white flour or sugar) like white bread and white pasta, try to consume more nutrient-dense unrefined carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, butternut squash, pumpkin, corn, etc.) and legumes.

How much to eat

It’s hard to fathom all the new demands that pregnancy will place on your body until you begin to experience them. But just consider the notion of growing a baby inside you, and it’s no wonder that virtually all nutrient requirements are higher. This is not the time to diet.

Under typical activity levels that range from sedentary to active, a healthy woman of childbearing age should get roughly 2000–2400 calories per day to stay healthy.

This range is just an estimate, so it’s quite possible to need somewhat more, or less, depending on your exact age, weight, and height. From this baseline, health organizations recommend daily increases in calorie and nutrient consumption during pregnancy.

Here are a few 

  • Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada: 2nd trimester: ~340 extra calories per day; 3rd trimester: ~ 450 extra calories per day
  • American Pregnancy Association: 300 extra calories per day (2nd and 3rd trimesters)
  • Dieticians Association of Australia: Quality of food more important than quantity, but expect to need more lean meat, chicken, fish, nuts and seeds, reduced-fat milk and yoghurt, green leafy vegetables
  • British Nutrition Foundation: 200 extra kcal/day during the third trimester only 

What key nutrients do you need?

Everyone needs certain key nutrients to remain healthy, but these take on special importance during pregnancy because it’s not just the maintenance of your own adult life that you are nourishing, it’s also the development of a new one.

Vitamin C is shown to benefit the body during pregnancy with its antioxidant properties. It also helps in the metabolism of folate and iron, both of which are critical nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. Citrus fruits, honeydew melon, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, kiwi, and many fruits and vegetables are good sources of C.

Adequate folate is needed to prevent neural tube defects (defects of the brain and spine). Dark green vegetables like spinach, asparagus, and brussels sprouts are a common source of this water-soluble B vitamin. So is liver.

B vitamins and fibre are found in carbohydrates like the whole grains mentioned above. Fibre helps lower risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and colon cancer, and B vitamins give you energy and facilitate cell metabolism.

Animal and plant-based protein are both beneficial, but it may be best to get your protein primarily from plants (beans, lentils, etc.) because it is better for your heart thanks to less animal fat and more fibre. Meat, fish, poultry and legumes also contain Iron (as do dark green vegetables) which your body needs to increase its blood volume during pregnancy.

Calcium is used by the body for teeth, bone, and muscle development, and nerve function. The calcium present in women’s bones can be tapped to support development in fetuses, so it’s vital that pregnant women get enough. Sources include dairy products, green vegetables, seafood, and some legumes.

Vitamin D supports the development of your growing baby’s bones and teeth. Vitamin D is primarily acquired from sunlight, but just because you get outside does not necessarily mean your body can make enough vitamin D. Some limits to this are: genetics, darker skin tone, heavy sunscreen use or covering up, and living at a northern latitude. Some fish, and dairy products, provide small amounts of vitamin D, but depending on how relevant the above factors are in your life, a vitamin D supplement may be a good bet.

Omega-3 DHA is a crucial fatty acid that developing fetuses, and infants, need for brain, eye, and nervous system development. DHA also offers important mood support for moms both during and after pregnancy. Omega-3s are commonly found in cold-water fish like cod, sardines and anchovies, salmon, mackerel, etc., and these remain good options for women to get omega-3s during pregnancy so long as fish consumption is limited to 2-3 times per week. More than that raises the risk of consuming heavy metals like mercury (and other toxins) that bioaccumulate in fish over their lifetimes. The risk of this is generally greater with larger species of fish. A triglyceride-form fish oil supplement is the best way to get safe and consistent DHA.


Special considerations for vegetarians and vegans

Depending on how strictly you avoid foods made from or with animals, it may be difficult or impossible to get all the nutrition you need during pregnancy from diet alone.

Supplementation with vegetarian vitamin D, omega-3 DHA, and B Complex products could be your best bet for those hard-to-get-nutrients in strictly vegetarian and vegan diets. Check with your GP/doctor if you have concerns.


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