The process of growing new life is a beautiful and intricate one. To support your body as it embarks on one of the hardest jobs it'll ever do, it's important that you eat a nourishing diet. The best foods to eat while pregnant will help support both parent and baby during this crucial time when nutrient demands are higher.
Starting in the second trimester, you'll need an extra 340 calories per day and a little more than that in the third trimester, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). That's roughly the amount of calories you'll get from an apple with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and a glass of milk.
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Of course, more important than the number is where those calories come from. Here, nutrition experts weigh in on how to make the most out of your diet while you're pregnant.
In the past, pregnant people were told to avoid eating fish and other seafood because some have high levels of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that's been linked to birth defects, per the ACOG. But there are plenty of fish that are safe to eat during pregnancy.
In fact, while it might be a tough sell if you're dealing with morning sickness, oily fish, in particular, are swimming in nutrients that are crucial for your baby's brain and eye development.
Pregnant people should get 8 to 12 ounces of low-mercury seafood each week, such as salmon, skipjack tuna and trout, says Lauren Manaker, RDN, LD, a prenatal dietitian, certified lactation educator and author of The Seven-Ingredient Healthy Pregnancy Cookbook.
Fatty fish is a great food source of omega-3 fats, specifically, a type called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This healthy fat is good for both baby and parent during pregnancy. "DHA has been linked to a reduced risk of preterm birth and developing postpartum depression," Manaker says.
For our vegan parents-to-be, Manaker suggests talking to your OBGYN about algae-based DHA supplements, which may be a good choice to help fill this nutritional gap.
Some types of fish also give you the added benefit of vitamin D, which most of us don't get enough of. During pregnancy, vitamin D is used to help build a baby's bones and teeth, and it helps promote healthy eyesight and skin, per the ACOG.
Trout, salmon, sardines and tuna will provide vitamin D as well as the much-needed omega-3 fatty acids.
If you're pregnant, you should not eat bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish or tilefish, per the ACOG.
You should also limit white albacore tuna in your diet to only 6 ounces per week. Make sure to check advisories about any fish you're eating that's been caught in local waters.
Eggs are one of those foods that are constantly up for debate. But when it comes to pregnancy, there's no doubt about it: Eggs are a nutritional superstar, and it's because they're abundant in one very important nutrient — choline.
"Choline is a nutrient that isn't always talked about in the prenatal world, but it should be," Manaker says. "It helps support healthy spinal cord development and is linked to baby's brain health years after birth."
Not only that, but choline may be lacking in your prenatal supplement, advises reproductive health dietitian Rachelle Mallik, RD, founder of The Food Therapist.
A pregnant person needs at least 450 milligrams per day of choline, according to the ACOG. One egg provides 169 milligrams of choline. Other foods high in choline include:
- Lean beef
- Soy products
Dairy milk provides a slew of nutrients that are needed during pregnancy including:
- Calcium — for strong bones and teeth
- Vitamin B12 — helps form new red blood cells
- Vitamin A — for healthy eyesight, skin and bones
- Vitamin D (fortified) — for bones and teeth and immune system support
Milk also has iodine, and while you might be getting enough of this mineral from iodized salt otherwise, you'll need more of it if you're pregnant.
"We've learned that iodine is crucial for thyroid hormone production and fetal development," Mallik says. "The need for this nutrient increases by about 50 percent in pregnancy." Specifically, you need 220 micrograms of iodine per day, according to the ACOG.
The amount of iodine in milk can vary quite a bit, per May 2020 research in Nutrients. On average, one cup of milk can give you about 94 micrograms of iodine, per the USDA.
A glass or two of milk can help you get closer to your daily goal for iodine. Mallik recommends other food sources of iodine as well, such as eggs, seafood and iodized salt.
4. Beans and Legumes
Your options for beans and legumes are endless — black beans, chickpeas, pintos, lentils, peas and more. These plants are the perfect food for pregnancy because of the nutrients they provide.
Beans and legumes are high in fiber, which is particularly important during pregnany. Constipation is a common issue during pregnancy with all of the hormonal changes your body is going through.
Adding a serving or two of beans per day can help you get the fiber you need to stay regular. Just remember to increase fiber in your diet slowly and drink plenty of water to avoid any additional tummy upset.
Beans and legumes also give you iron, which is essential while you're pregnant. "Pregnant people have a higher risk for iron deficiency because your daily needs are much higher," says Bianca Tamburello, RDN. She recommends iron-rich foods for pregnancy to support the increase in blood volume.
Your blood volume (which is just a fancy way of saying the amount of blood circulating in your body) will increase slightly during the first trimester, but will make a larger leap in the second and third trimesters.
Some research shows blood volume can increase as much as 48 percent from the beginning of pregnancy to the end of the third trimester, according to a December 2019 review in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.
You can get iron from animal foods such as lean beef, poultry and fish. There is also some iron in plant foods like beans and legumes, but your body may not absorb it as well.
"Iron in animal foods is absorbed best by the body but there are ways to maximize iron absorption from vegetarian foods, " Tamburello says. "Pair vegetarian iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as orange juice, tomato juice or strawberries, which can help with iron absorption."
5. Potatoes — Sweet and White
Sweet potatoes are are one of the best foods to eat while you're pregnant. One medium sweet potato gives you over 100 percent of the recommended amount of vitamin A you need during pregnancy in the form of beta-carotene.
Vitamin A comes in two forms:
- Preformed vitamin A: animal foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, liver and fish oil
- Provitamin A (or carotenoids): plant foods such as sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, carrots, mango and apricots
Vitamin A is essential for your eye health and for the development of your baby's eyes, organs, bones and immune system, according to a March 2019 review in Nutrients.
While vitamin A deficiency is public health concern around the world, it's not common among Americans. In fact, supplementing with vitamin A can cause toxicity, which is a real danger during pregnancy. Eating foods with beta-carotene is a much safer way to make sure you're getting the nutrients you need.
White potatoes are often demonized in the diet world, but the truth is, they're full of nutrients you need. White potatoes have vitamin C and vitamin B6, which you'll need more of while you're pregnant, per the ACOG.
And be sure to prepare sweet and white potatoes with the skins on, which will give you more of that much-needed fiber.
6. Foods With Folate
Folate is a B-vitamin that's used in the formation of our red blood cells, but it has particular importance before and during pregnancy, according to the ACOG.
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 found in food. Taking in enough B9 will help prevent birth defects of baby's brain and spine — specifically, a neural tube defect called spina bifida.
This vitamin also supports the healthy growth and development of baby and the placenta (which is why you need more during early pregnancy).
The ACOG and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both recommend taking prenatal supplements with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, to prevent neural tube defects. Folic acid is said to be more heat-stable than folate, and therefore more appropriate for supplements.
"Although there are some prenatal supplements that contain folate, the CDC urges people to stick to folic acid because folate has not been shown to offer the same risk reduction according to the medical literature," Manaker says.
While pregnant, you need at least 600 micrograms of folic acid each day, and the ACOG recommends taking a daily prenatal vitamin with at least 400 micrograms starting at least 1 month before pregnancy.
Eating foods high in folate before and during pregnancy can help you ensure you're getting enough of this super important nutrient. Add in options like:
- Romaine lettuce
- Kidney beans
- Orange juice
What About Prenatal Vitamins?
If you're thinking about getting pregnant or you just found out you're expecting, getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals is extremely important, and it's likely your doctor will recommend that you start taking a quality prenatal vitamin.
But as it is with all supplements, don't believe the hype around expensive or celeb-endorsed products. Go with brands you trust, and when in doubt, ask your doctor for advice if you need help choosing.
When you're shopping, the ACOG recommends making sure the following nutrients are in your supplement:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B6
- Folic Acid
Your doctor may be able to prescribe a prenatal vitamin, but if not, here are a few dietitian-recommended brands to try:
Top 4 Prenatal Supplements
- Nature Made Prenatal + DHA: ($14.62, Amazon)
- Deva Prenatal Vitamins: ($12.64, Amazon)
- Olly Essential Prenatal: ($15.99, Amazon)
- Garden of Life Mykind Organic Prenatal ($49.87, Amazon)
- ACOG: "Nutrition During Pregnancy"
- BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth: "Plasma Volume Expansion Across Healthy Pregnancy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies"
- NIH: "Vitamin B6 Fact Sheet"
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology: Nutrition During Pregnancy
- Nutrients: Large Variability of Iodine Content in Retail Cow’s Milk in the U.S.
- USDA Food Data Central: Milk