Key nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy
What to Know
- Healthy eating improves your health and your growing baby’s development
- Baby gets first dibs on your nutrient supply
- Learn which nutrients are especially important and how to incorporate them into your diet
- The quality and variety of what you eat while pregnant can influence your baby’s food preferences throughout his life
Now, more than ever, is an important time to maintain healthy eating habits. Growing a baby is a huge job for your body, and you’ll need a balanced and varied diet to maintain your health for the journey ahead. Not to mention the fact your baby will be depending on your diet and nutrient stores to provide for his healthy growth and development.
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Staying well-nourished while pregnant is vital because your body will prioritize the baby. This means that if you are not taking in enough nutrients, your baby will use up what he needs and you, mama, will be left depleted. While you don’t need to eat for two in the early months, during your entire pregnancy you need to think for two and prioritize food quality. Scroll to What to Do for specific food examples and amounts.
So how do you stay well-nourished and energized? Keep up your nutrient and fluid intake throughout your pregnancy. During pregnancy your body becomes more efficient, utilizing more of the nutrients in the foods you eat. This means that choosing nutrient dense foods will nourish your body in the best way possible. While all nutrient needs increase throughout pregnancy, in the first trimester your body does not yet need additional calories to support your baby (a developing fetus is small!). In the second and third trimester, your calorie needs do increase. If you were a healthy weight before you became pregnant, you will need about 340 additional calories per day during your second trimester and about 450 additional calories per day during your third trimester; if you were under or overweight prior to getting pregnant, those numbers will go up or down accordingly. Gaining the right amount of weight helps ensure a problem-free pregnancy and offers lasting benefits for you and your baby (see Achieving healthy weight gain in pregnancy and why it’s good for you and your baby). Chat with the Happy Mama Mentors if you have questions or concerns about your pregnancy weight gain.
And don’t forget about fluids. Stay hydrated by drinking ample amounts of water and other fluids—and consuming fruits and vegetables, which are naturally rich in water—to support your baby’s development, nutrition, and well-being in the womb.
Eating well in pregnancy not only benefits your baby’s growth, but also his palate, for years to come, because your baby’s taste preferences begin to develop in the womb. Eating a wide variety of flavors throughout pregnancy (from fresh, whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, lean meats, and whole grains) boosts the odds that your baby will accept a wider variety of healthy foods. Learn more it in Healthy Taste Development.
Do your best to follow your healthy eating plan. It’s okay to occasionally indulge a craving for high calorie, low nutrient foods like baked goods or nachos. Just try to make sure you’re staying within the daily calorie limits your doctor recommends (there are ways to satisfy your cravings without derailing your healthy eating plan!). You’ll want to keep your added sugar and salt intake low so that you can support your own good health. Remember that eating regular meals containing adequate protein and fiber helps keep these cravings at bay in the first place.
Remember to practice good Food Safety In Pregnancy and steer clear of any off-limits foods discussed in Which Foods and Ingredients Should I be Avoiding While Pregnant.
What to Do
Eat and drink regularly throughout the day
In the first trimester, when you need to amp up nutrient density without increasing calorie intake, switch out any “empty” foods for whole foods and make sure you are getting enough produce. As your calorie needs increase in the second and third trimesters, add in extra vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein-rich foods. Ensure you are well-hydrated by drinking 8-13 (8 oz) glasses of fluid daily, plus more to replenish water lost as sweat during exercise. Choosing mostly water helps you stay hydrated without loading you up with sugar, caffeine, and food additives. Alcohol? Best to skip it—there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy.
Choose healthier fat sources
Find healthier fats (mono and polyunsaturated) in fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, and olive and nut oils for cooking and salad dressings. Be sure to meet your recommended DHA intake requirement (key for infant brain a development) by eating 8-12 ounces of omega 3-rich fish per week, opting for fish lower in mercury, such as wild salmon (fresh, frozen or canned) and canned sardines. If you eat beef and dairy, you can also get some DHA by choosing 100% grass fed beef and dairy products from grass fed cows but do choose the leaner, lower-fat varieties in order to limit your intake of saturated fats. Avoid trans fats all together (found in processed foods such as baked goods).
Pack in the protein
Your protein needs increase during pregnancy to support your and your baby’s growth (specifically, the synthesis of maternal and fetal tissues). Eat several daily servings of high-protein foods, like low mercury fish, lean meat and poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans, tempeh, tofu, and nuts. To get the most bang for your protein buck, remember that a 3-ounce piece of meat or salmon contains a whopping 21 grams of protein, an 8 ounce container of yogurt has 11 grams, a half-cup of cooked beans has 8 grams and a cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein.
Feed on fiber
Eat plenty of fiber while you’re pregnant. Soluble fiber helps slow the movement of food through your digestive tract to give the body plenty of time to absorb nutrients and keep you feeling full. Insoluble fiber can help stave off constipation, a common pregnancy complaint. Get plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber from plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, and whole grains.
Get familiar with, and eat plenty of, micronutrients
Your needs for many micronutrients increase significantly during pregnancy. Chat with the Happy Mama Mentors to learn about the recommended daily requirements for micronutrients and the many ways to satisfy your specific intake needs. Focusing on incorporating these foods into your diet while pregnant will improve the lifetime health of you and your baby:
- Folate – Healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with neural tube defects. The neural tube becomes your baby’s brain and spinal cord. Folate is especially critical during the first trimester so make sure you’re getting enough from the start of your pregnancy, and ideally, several months before you conceive. Find folate in many foods such as vegetables (especially dark leafy green veggies), fruits, nuts, beans, dairy, and meat.
- Iron – During pregnancy, you need extra iron to help your body make more blood to supply oxygen to your baby. And your baby will build iron stores in the womb that will last him for the first six months of life. Too little iron during pregnancy can be problematic for your baby’s brain development and can give you anemia. Find iron in beef, white beans, eggs, spinach, lentils, and fortified grains. Your body absorbs iron best from plant sources if taken with a good source of vitamin C (for example, pair iron-rich cereal with strawberries or beans with tomatoes).
- Calcium – Although your calcium needs do not increase during pregnancy, calcium is still important for your own health and for your baby’s bones and teeth. Make sure you are getting adequate amounts, preferably through your diet, or else your body may take the supplies from your bones for your baby, which can put you at risk for osteoporosis. Low-fat dairy, dark leafy greens, tofu, baked beans, almonds, sardines, sesame seeds, and figs all contain calcium. Many cereals are now fortified with calcium too, so check the labels.
- Zinc – Zinc is essential for tissue growth, which your baby will be doing a lot of! Get your zinc from meat, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy.
- Vitamin D – it can be difficult to reach the recommended amount of vitamin D from diet alone, but the best sources are fish and fortified dairy products.
- B6 –Vitamin B6 is not stored in the body to any great extent and the increased need is concentrated in the second half of pregnancy. Eating fish, starchy vegetables (like potatoes) and non-citrus fruits (like bananas) will help you reach your recommended B6 requirements.
- Iodine – Iodine is essential for the thyroid (both yours and your baby’s once it’s formed) which is important for neurological development. Many women don’t get enough iodine because so much of our sodium intake comes from processed foods and fast foods made with non-iodized salt. Seafood, dairy, and iodized salt are your best sources for iodine.
- Choline – Choline is truly critical during preconception and pregnancy. Your body can’t make it so you will need to rely on food or supplements to ingest the proper amount. Like folate, it helps develop the neural tube, which becomes your baby’s brain and spinal cord. A high-choline diet may improve how well the placenta functions and protect the baby from environmental toxins. Eggs, beef, salmon, and quinoa are all great sources of choline.
Take a prenatal vitamin
In addition to following a healthy eating plan, take a prenatal vitamin to help ensure you are meeting your daily nutritional requirements for vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients.
Your body needs extra folic acid, iron, iodine, zinc, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, vitamin C, choline, magnesium, selenium, manganese, copper, and vitamin A during pregnancy. While your calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, vitamin E and biotin needs stay the same, you’ll still want to ensure you’re getting the right amount.
Talk with your health care provider about your specific needs for any additional supplementation during your pregnancy
For example, if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you many need a B12 supplement, as this vitamin is found only in animal products. You also may need additional supplements depending on the levels in your prenatal vitamin.
Gluckman, Peter. Hanson, Mark. Yap Seng, Chong. Bardsley, Anne. Nutrition and Lifestyle for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding, 2014.
“Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets” National Institutes of Health. Date accessed 16 July 2018.