Pregnancy Diet: The Ultimate Guide for What to Eat and Not Eat while Pregnant

titled image: The Pregnancy Diet: Ultimate Guide for What to Eat or Not Eat While Pregnant

A pregnancy diet is important because pregnancy can be a confusing time when it comes to knowing what to eat and what not to eat.  Your body is changing, and you need to support those changes with the right foods. Your growing baby needs different nutrients during different stages of pregnancy. Plus, cravings, morning sickness, and stress all factor into what you are actually going to be putting into your mouth!

We’ve put together an ultimate guide to nourishing yourself and your growing baby during pregnancy.  Our pregnancy diet guide provides important nutrients essential for your baby’s development and your healthy pregnancy. It points out key foods to focus on and lets you know why to avoid others. And to make things simple, this guide is a comprehensive diet plan that can be used throughout your pregnancy and to support your body postpartum.

By eating our whole-foods pregnancy diet you can better build and replenish your nutrient reserves, promote proper weight gain, and increase your chances of a healthy outcome for both you and your child.

Why It’s Important to Eat Well During Pregnancy

Healthy pregnant woman

We’ve all heard it said that you can “eat for two” when you’re pregnant.  But consuming excess nutrients and calories during pregnancy can actually be just as damaging as eating too few, and it can increase a pregnant woman’s risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia while also increasing the child’s risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in adulthood [1].

It’s important to remember that pregnant women who are at a healthy BMI (between 19 and 25) only need to increase their calorie intake by about 250-300 calories starting at 13 weeks, the second trimester.  Those whose BMI is over 25 need to increase their calorie intake even less. [Check your BMI here.]

300 calories isn’t eating for two or even for one and a half. It’s having a cup of bone broth (120 calories), a banana (100 calories), and 11 almonds (77 calories) extra to eat in your day.

But keep in mind that all calories are not created equal; some are more nutrient-dense, like healthy fats. They don’t cause weight gain in the same way that unrefined carbs like sugar will, so don’t get obsessive about counting calories. The important thing is to focus on eating nutrient-dense foods containing the vitamins and minerals that are in extra demand during pregnancy.

And remember: A pregnant woman’s body will deplete her own vitamins and mineral reserves to make sure the baby has all the nutrients it needs. This means that requirements for many nutrients are at a lifetime high during pregnancy and lactation.

What Nutrients Do I Need to Increase?

Folate

Vitamin B9 is also known as folate. This vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects and should be in good supply before conception. In addition, throughout pregnancy folate requirements jump by 70% to support DNA synthesis, optimal growth and development of the fetus, and blood volume expansion and tissue growth of the mother. There is also increased demand for folate during lactation. [2] [3]

Some people have difficulty processing the synthetic form of folate called folic acid. Folic acid is also controversial—some studies have linked it to adverse health effects such as infertility, high blood pressure, and breast cancer. That is why we recommend consuming folate through food sources and in supplements that contain methylfolate (5-MTHF), which the body does not have to convert.

Good sources: lentils, beans, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, asparagus, papaya, oranges, and grapefruit.

Iron

Iron requirements are 150% higher during pregnancy. It is essential in making hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the other cells.  And since you are making another human, you’re making a lot of hemoglobin. You’re body contains 50% more blood when you are pregnant.

Iron-deficient anemia is linked to preterm delivery, low birth weights, and infant mortality.

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme is easier for your body to absorb and is found only in animal sources. Plants, supplements, and fortified foods contain non-heme iron. Red meat, liver, poultry, and seafood contain both types of iron.

Good sources: Liver, fish, meat, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, brown rice, and dark green leafy vegetables like kale.

Vitamin C

Papaya- a Good Source of Folate for a pregnancy diet

Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plant sources. It’s also necessary for the body to make collagen, a structural protein in bones, skin, cartilage, and tendons. Both mom and baby need vitamin C daily for tissue growth and repair (think about preventing stretch marks too), to keep their immune systems healthy, and to protect their cells from damage.  Vitamin C demands are 70% higher during pregnancy and go up even more during lactation.

Good sources: Papaya, red bell pepper, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, pineapple, and oranges.

DHA

Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. DHA helps to build your baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system, which really start to form during the third trimester of pregnancy. At this time, most of the mom’s DHA is transferred to her baby. But that doesn’t mean you should be focusing on this nutrient only later in pregnancy—you need to start building this nutrient up in your system before your baby needs it. Most people’s diets are already deficient in DHA because it is most abundant in fish. This is why most healthcare providers recommend fish oil supplements for pregnant women.

Keeping levels high reduces the risk of postpartum depression and supports breastfeeding, so don’t stop focusing on DHA after you’ve given birth.

Good sources: Fish, algae, eggs.

Calcium

Your baby needs calcium to build strong bones and teeth, grow a healthy heart, nerves, and muscles, and develop proper heart rhythm and blood clotting. Making sure you have enough calcium during pregnancy reduces your risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia. If you aren’t consuming enough calcium, your body will steal the calcium your baby needs from your bones and teeth.

You’ll need about 1,400 mg of calcium per day while pregnant, which is equivalent to four eight-ounce glasses of milk. But there are plenty of other non-dairy food choices too. One cup of steamed collard greens has about the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk.

Good sources: tofu, sardines, sesame seeds, yogurt, collard greens, spinach, cheese, turnip greens, and beet greens.

Protein

When you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, your protein demands go up by about 25%. Your body uses the amino acids in proteins to build the cells for your baby’s body and to support your organs, which need to grow bigger to accommodate the needs of your baby.

You can use this calculator to estimate your protein needs: http://www.globalrph.com/protein-calculator.htm

Increasing protein also helps you regulate your blood sugar, control your weight, and decrease your chance of developing gestational diabetes.

Good sources: bone broth, grass-fed meat, organic poultry, pasture-raised eggs, quinoa, nuts and seeds, lentils and beans.

While foods provide the most absorbable forms of the nutrients that are needed for pregnancy, adding a prenatal supplement is recommended.

Prenatal Supplements

Prenatal supplements are the fastest way to replenish any nutritional deficiencies and should be started before you conceive and continued for three months after delivery or weaning if you are breastfeeding.

Supplements are becoming a more important recommendation from healthcare providers, because fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us eat today. Soil depletion and industrial farming practices designed to select for size and pest resistance over nutritional content have decreased the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C in our produce. Studies have found that iron has dipped as much as 37%, vitamin C averages about 30% lower, and calcium is down by 27%.[12]

Ask your health care provider for a recommendation for a high-quality prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement.  DHA will often be need to be taken as a separate supplement.

Now that you know which nutrients are in higher demand during pregnancy, take a look at our top picks for the foods to add to your diet when pregnant.

7 Best Foods to Eat During Pregnancy

mug of Bone Broth

Bone Broth

Rich in collagen protein and the amino acids glutamine and glycine, bone broth is super supportive of pregnancy.

During the second trimester, bone broth helps you meet your increased calorie needs while providing the amino acids to build your baby’s body. The collagen also helps to reduce stretch marks and support your joints, which are being impacted by your pregnancy weight. The glutamine helps to curb unhealthy cravings, helping you to not overeat. And the glycine is beneficial for calming your mind, reducing stress, and helping you sleep.

Recommendation: One cup daily.

Salmon

Salmon has the highest concentration of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA of any fish.  DHA is important for supporting the brain and nervous system development of your baby as well as your own mental functioning.

We know that many people are cautious about seafood during pregnancy because they are concerned about mercury levels in fish. In 2017, The US Food and Drug Administration in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund revised their advice on fish because the nutritional benefits of eating moderate amounts of seafood outweigh the risk of toxins. They encourage children and pregnant women to choose fish that are low in mercury, such as salmon from Alaska, arctic char, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, sable fish, anchovies, US-farmed rainbow trout, and albacore tuna from the US and Canada. [4]

Recommendation: Three four-ounce servings per week.

100% Grass-Fed Beef

Red meat contains the highest amount of heme iron, the easily absorbable form. Iron is in high demand and is used to create all that extra blood we need when pregnant.  Plus, beef contains more protein per ounce than any other food, and we need that extra protein too.

But please note that we are very careful to specify 100% grass-fed beef.

Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid composition and antioxidant content of beef. Grass-fed beef contains less fat overall and they are specifically lower in saturated fats that cause elevated cholesterol levels. Plus, the healthy omega-3 fatty acid CLA is much more abundant in 100% grass-fed beef.  In addition, it contains elevated levels of cancer-fighting glutathione, vitamin A, vitamin E, and superoxide dismutase.[5]

This is also why Kettle & Fire sources 100% grass-fed beef bones for our beef bone broth.

Recommendation: Three four-ounce servings per week.

Lemons

We wanted to be sure to include a vitamin C-rich food in this pregnancy diet list. Lemons made the cut because they are one of the foods most commonly craved during pregnancy. Their acid vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, especially from plant sources. Vitamin C also helps you naturally generate collagen to build your baby’s body and support your growing organs and stretching skin.

The zest (skin) of the lemon contains five times more vitamin C than the juice, so don’t be afraid to plop a few slices, skin and all, into your blender when making a smoothie.  Using the zest and juice will brighten up your grains, greens, salad dressings, and that mug of bone broth too.

Recommendation: zest and juice from at least ½ lemon daily.

Leafy Greens

Full of folate, iron, and calcium, leafy greens are a must for our ultimate pregnancy diet. But don’t get stuck on just one kind; they all have their strengths.  For example, did you know that romaine lettuce actually has more folate than kale?

Spinach, swiss chard, beet greens, mustard greens, and collards are all wonderful braised in a bit of bone broth or mixed into a soup.

Recommendation: At least one cup of cooked greens or two cups of raw daily.

Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are a powerhouse food.  They contain omega-3 fatty acids, protein, calcium, and fiber.

During pregnancy, the extra progesterone in your system can make your gut sluggish, slowing digestion and causing constipation. The lignin fiber in flax helps prevent constipation and soothes the digestive tract.

Ground flax is a wonderful booster to mix into smoothies, oatmeal, and mugs of bone broth.

Recommendation: One tablespoon ground flaxseed daily for your pregnancy diet.

Blueberries

fresh blueberries

While it’s important to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables (all the different colors give you different nutrients), we absolutely love blueberries. Their dark purple skin contains powerful flavonoids, and they are packed with antioxidants needed to prevent birth defects.[6]

Plus, blueberries are a low-sugar, high-fiber fruit that are a good choice to keep gestational diabetes and constipation in check. Perfect for a pregnancy diet.

Recommendation: ¼ cup per day.

Full-Fat Organic Plain Yogurt

Yogurt is rich in calcium, and unlike milk, it contains good, healthy bacteria to help you balance your gut flora. These probiotics reduce inflammation and infection and support the mother’s immune system. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the health of a mother’s digestive tract may influence the neurological development of her offspring. [7] [8]

Including probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir, and yogurt is a great idea during pregnancy.

We’ve specifically chosen full-fat organic yogurt because it contains tons of calcium. Full-fat dairy products contains less lactose than lower-fat varieties, making them much easier to digest. Make sure that you are choosing organic dairy to keep your diet as clean as possible, because toxins and chemicals are trapped in fat cells.

If you can’t tolerate any dairy, choose another probiotic-rich food and a calcium supplement.

Recommendation: One cup per day.

As you can see, the key to an ultimate pregnancy diet is to eat foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy omega-3 fats.

Now that you know which foods to focus on, let’s take a look at foods to avoid when pregnant.

What Not to Eat When Pregnant

Foods with High Listeria Risk

Getting food poisoning when you are pregnant is unpleasant for you but very dangerous for your growing baby. Listeria infection increases your risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, infection to your baby, and infant mortality.[9]

Listeria infection is rare, but 27% of cases are diagnosed in pregnant women. A healthy pregnancy diet with freshly cooked and prepared foods is the best way to avoid these bacteria.

Foods that are more likely to contain listeria include:

  • Soft cheeses such as brie and blue cheeses like gorgonzola
  • Unpasteurized milk
  • Pate, including vegetable pate
  • Raw or partially cooked egg whites
  • Raw or undercooked meat, fish, or seafood
  • Pre-packaged or salad bar salads
  • Pre-cooked packaged meats and deli meats

Unwashed Vegetables

We want you to eat tons of veggies when you are pregnant, but make sure they are thoroughly washed. Some soil can contain parasites that cause toxoplasmosis.  Again, this is more dangerous to your developing baby than to you, and risks are similar to those of listeria infection.

Make sure your vegetables are scrubbed clean and your cutting boards and work surfaces are disinfected.  Avoiding raw vegetables when eating out can also decrease your risk of this infection. (Raw and undercooked meat can also carry this these parasites.)

Too Many Carbs

Here we are really thinking about sugar. Avoiding sugar on a pregnancy diet is an important step in decreasing your risk of developing gestational diabetes. Women who develop gestational diabetes are at an increased risk for pregnancy complications. Gestational diabetes also increases the likelihood that your child will be overweight and develop type 2 diabetes. [10]

If you have a family history of diabetes or have been diagnosed as prediabetic, keeping sugar out of your diet is strongly recommended.

But don’t forget, carbs can really pile up in other foods, as well, such as bread, pasta, juice, dairy products, rice, beans, and potatoes.

A healthy balanced pregnancy diet should include three to four servings of carbohydrates per day. A serving of carbs is equivalent to ½ cup of cooked pasta, rice, quinoa, oatmeal, beans, or lentils; one slice of bread; or one fist-sized potato.  These can add up fast!  Having one cup of oatmeal in the morning and a sandwich for lunch gets you to your four servings before dinner. It’s easier to keep your blood sugar balanced by eating smaller servings of carbs throughout the day—one serving at each meal plus a snack.

*Note, if your doctor tells you that you need to be gaining more weight to sustain your pregnancy, then adding more servings of healthy whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa can help.

Too Much Caffeine

We know that research is mixed about caffeine on a pregnancy diet, but most studies conclude that it is safe to drink less than 300 mg per day, which is equivalent to about two eight-ounce cups of drip-style coffee. [11]

Most people report feeling more energetic when they quit caffeine, and since coffee can often trigger heartburn, a common pregnancy side effect, we suggest limiting your caffeine consumption.

Switching out just one cup of coffee for one mug of bone broth can be a wonderful way to start your day and add protein to your morning routine.

Alcohol

We don’t think we even need to mention this here, but alcohol and a pregnancy diet don’t mix. Beyond the risks to the baby, alcohol is a high-carbohydrate food that does not provide enough nutritional benefit to outweigh the risks.  We know that pregnancy is stressful. So if you need to unwind at the end of the day, try a lovely chamomile herbal tea or one of our soothing bone broth tonics.

the pregnancy diet food list infographic

Download the Pregnancy Diet Food List

To keep things simple and help you remember which foods to eat and avoid while pregnant, we created a downloadable list in PDF format. You can refer to this list to help guide your choices when grocery shopping, planning meals, or eating out at restaurants.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE PDF

You can boost the chances of having a healthy pregnancy with your food choices. We recommend:

  1. Bookmarking this page on your laptop or smartphone for quick reference.
  2. Pinning the Pregnancy Diet Food List on Pinterest.
  3. Printing our downloadable Pregnancy Diet Food List (click the button above) and taking it with you when you go grocery shopping.

The Pregnancy Diet helps keep you on track for proper weight gain, reduced stretch marks, and lowered risk of complications, but most importantly it provides your baby with all the nutrients he or she needs for proper growth and development. Enjoy this special time in your life and treat yourself to the best nutrition.

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