A comprehensive guide to pregnancy nutrition
Congratulations on your pregnancy! Taking care of yourself through a nutritious diet is a step toward ensuring the well-being of you and your baby.
A balanced diet plays a crucial role in preventing conditions like high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, while also supporting the healthy growth of your baby's bones and teeth. To assist you on this journey, we've whipped up (pun intended) a guide to a healthy pregnancy diet.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
Nutrient-rich foods for pregnancy
When it comes to essential nutrients during pregnancy, it helps to consider two categories: macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients.
Micronutrients include the following:
Folic acid: vital for early pregnancy when the baby's brain and spine develop.
Iron: helps in blood cell production and prevents anemia.
Choline: important for your baby’s brain development.
Calcium: important for your baby’s bone and teeth development and valuable for your long-term bone health.
Vitamin D: helps you to absorb calcium in your diet and works together with calcium to promote healthy bones and teeth.
Omega-3 fatty acids: very important for your baby’s brain development and might have other benefits such as reducing your risk of preterm birth and developing preeclampsia.
Looking at pregnancy nutrition from a food group perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture  classifies foods into five main groups:
Fruits: Opt for whole, fresh fruits to avoid excessive sugars found in processed options.
Vegetables: Choose dark green, red, and orange vegetables, beans, peas, and lentils for added protein. Fresh, raw veggies contain the most micronutrients.
Grains: Incorporate non-processed whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa, and brown rice, making up at least half of your grain intake.
Proteins: Select lean and low-fat options such as lean meat, tofu, pork loin, legumes, and skinless chicken breasts. Also, consider seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury, like salmon, anchovies, and mackerel.
Hydration and its role in pregnancy
It's not just about loading up on nutrient-packed goodies; staying chill and hydrated is part of the journey too. Your body naturally increases its stores of fluids in preparation for childbirth, so maintaining an adequate water intake is key to preserving amniotic fluid levels and preventing potential kidney issues, such as kidney stones.
To keep things flowing smoothly (literally), it’s recommended to take in about 2.5 to 3 liters of water per day – perhaps even more depending on your climate and daily activities. Keep in mind that this is a total fluid intake, which can include the food that you eat, so try to drink at least 2 quarts, or about a half-gallon, of clear water daily, while trying to avoid high-calorie and sugary drinks like sodas.
Common nutritional challenges in pregnancy
So, here's the lowdown - those pregnancy hormones might throw a little party with your appetite. Your pregnancy hormones may cause you to have nausea, morning sickness, and some food aversions.
Some ways to help ensure you get enough nutrients during pregnancy include:
Take your daily prenatal vitamins – they are specially prepared to ensure that, in most cases, you’ll be taking in enough vitamins and minerals to support a developing baby.
If your prenatal vitamin is making you sick, talk with your obstetric provider to see about alternative options. Sometimes taking one or two of a child’s chewable vitamins will do (a great excuse to take a chewy vitamin in our book!). Be sure to check the ingredients first, to ensure they match up with a prenatal vitamin.
If you’re sick of morning sickness, here's an inside scoop to try: small doses of bland or dry foods throughout the day might be your secret weapon. And remember, in this trimester, it's not all about counting calories - it's more about nailing that daily prenatal vitamin routine and staying hydrated.
Supplements and their role in pregnancy
Prenatal supplements are commonly prescribed during pregnancy but aren’t meant to be a substitute for a healthy diet – instead, they can best be seen as a way to ensure you are getting all of your micronutrients.
Recommended amount: Check the label or chat with your doctor.
Sources: Pills, soft gummies, powders, or liquids.
What you should know: They can be prescribed, or you can buy them over the counter.
Recommended amount: The amount of folic acid (also known as folate) you need to take every day depends on whether you have certain conditions. Please speak with your healthcare provider to discuss how much is right for you.
Sources: Folic acid is one of the most important supplements to take because oftentimes you can’t get enough through a regular diet.
What you should know: If you’re actively trying to get pregnant, it’s a good idea to take folic acid supplements, to help ensure you have an adequate amount at the time of conception.
Recommended amount: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an iron intake of 27 mg/day during pregnancy .
Sources: Iron-rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, spinach, etc.) and supplements through prenatal vitamins.
What you should know: Iron is necessary for your baby’s brain development and to ensure you have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your vital organs, which include the placenta. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people have iron deficiency during pregnancy , so it can be pretty common to be prescribed an additional iron supplement.
Recommended amount: The recommended intake of choline during pregnancy is 450 mg/day .
Sources: Foods rich in choline: meat, cruciferous vegetables, eggs, dairy products, and poultry.
What you should know: Choline is one micronutrient that you may not have heard about. It’s an important component of some neurotransmitters, so it can influence your baby’s brain and cognitive development.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Sources: Most people will take in enough calcium and Vitamin D through their diets and standard prenatal vitamins that they won’t need any additional supplementation.
What you should know: Calcium and Vitamin D often go together and Vitamin D is necessary for calcium to be absorbed through the intestinal tract. Both of these micronutrients are needed for optimal development of your baby’s bones and teeth, so it’s possible for you to lose calcium stores in your bones during pregnancy, for your baby to grow properly.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Recommended amount: The recommended amount of Omega 3 Fatty Acids during pregnancy is 1,400 mg/day , and you should be consuming around 300 – 400 mg/day of DHA. Eating approximately 8 - 12 ounces of seafood per week is generally a good guideline for ensuring you get an ample supply of DHA.
Sources: It's important to strike a balance - aim for enough seafood to meet your Omega-3 needs while being mindful not to exceed the threshold where mercury might become a concern. If you are unsure about how much seafood, or even which seafood is safest, be sure to check in with your obstetric provider.
What you should know: Many prenatal vitamins will include DHA in their formulas because it is necessary for your baby’s brain and cognitive development.
Special considerations for vegetarian or vegan moms
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, here are some key nutrients to consider:
Protein for vegetarian/vegan moms
Soy products like tofu or edamame
Legumes like lentils and black beans
Nuts like almonds and cashews
Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower
Grains like quinoa and millet
Calcium for vegetarian/vegan moms
Non-dairy sources: Kale, broccoli, and fortified goodies like grains and tofu.
Vitamin D for vegetarian/vegan moms
Sources: Natural vitamin D is a bit of a unicorn, but fortified foods are your friends. Check out some grain cereals or plant-based milk like soy or almond milk.
Choline for vegetarian/vegan moms
Sources: Cruciferous vegetables and navy beans, as well as nuts, seeds, and grains. It’s fairly difficult to get enough choline in your diet, so check your intake and take supplements if needed.
Vitamin B12 for vegetarian/vegan moms
This one's a bit tricky. Vitamin B12 loves hanging out in animal products, but fear not!
Sources: You may have to supplement your intake of Vitamin B12, either through fortified foods (like nutritional yeast and breakfast cereals) or with vitamin B12 supplements.
During pregnancy, good nutrition involves not only the food you eat but also the amount of water you drink. With a strong and healthy diet, most of your nutrients can come in from the food you eat, however, it’s recommended that you still take a daily prenatal vitamin, as well as additional vitamin and mineral supplements if you have certain medical conditions. Keep an eye on the following:
Calcium and Vitamin D
Omega-3 fatty acids
Some people have medical conditions or take medicines requiring additional nutritional counseling and dietary supplements. Don't stress, just do a quick check-in with your obstetric provider early on. They'll review your history and medications, making sure you're on the right track for a nutrient-rich pregnancy.
Pregnancy nutrition FAQ
Q: Are there foods I should avoid during pregnancy?
During pregnancy, you should avoid seafood high in mercury. If you’re uncertain about which fish is safe, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  has published a listing of seafood and the estimated amount of mercury per fish. It’s also good to avoid foods that are high in Vitamin A, such as liver, and to limit Vitamin A supplements to no more than 5,000 IU/day. To reduce your risk of getting certain infections, avoid eating unpasteurized milk or cheese, and be sure to stay away from deli meat.
Q: Do I need to take supplements during pregnancy, and if so, which ones are essential?
Most people will benefit greatly from taking a daily prenatal vitamin, especially if they start before they get pregnant.
Q: How can I manage morning sickness and food aversions while ensuring proper nutrition?
The most important thing to do in these cases is to maintain hydration by drinking enough fluids and ensuring you are taking a daily prenatal vitamin. If the prenatal vitamin is making you sick, talk to your obstetric provider to see if there are other options for you to try.
Q: Can I satisfy pregnancy cravings without compromising nutrition?
For the most part, pregnancy cravings won’t cause a problem, so long as you keep things in balance, don’t overdo it, and ensure that what you are craving is not poisonous. Try keeping things to small portions but more frequently throughout the day.
Q: How can vegetarian or vegan mothers ensure they get enough nutrients during pregnancy?
Possibly the best way is to keep track of the foods you are eating and ensure you are getting a high variety of different foods. Some nutrients are only found in meats, eggs, and dairy products, such as Vitamin B12, while others can be limited in non-animal-based products, such as choline. If you’re uncertain, be sure to keep a food diary and speak with a qualified nutritionist, and be sure to take a daily prenatal vitamin supplement.
Q: Why is hydration important during pregnancy, and how much water should I drink?
Good hydration is valuable to help ensure a healthy amount of amniotic fluid and to reduce your chance of getting a kidney stone. Try to drink at least 2 quarts, or about a half-gallon, of clear water daily.
Q: Can I continue to enjoy caffeine during pregnancy?
Caffeine is OK to consume in pregnancy, but maybe not in the amount you’re used to. Try to limit caffeine intake to no more than 200 mg per day (about one 12-ounce cup of coffee) . Try to avoid consuming any caffeine after lunch, because taking in caffeine within 8 hours of bedtime will make it more difficult for you to sleep.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (2017). Back to Basics: All About MyPlate Food Groups. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/09/26/back-basics-all-about-myplate-food-groups
Morey S. S. (1998). CDC issues guidelines for prevention, detection and treatment of iron deficiency. American family physician. https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/1998/1015/p1475.html
Mei, Z., Cogswell, M. E., Looker, A. C., Pfeiffer, C. M., Cusick, S. E., Lacher, D. A., & Grummer-Strawn, L. M. (2011). Assessment of iron status in US pregnant women from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21430118/
Office of Dietary Supplements (2022). Choline. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/
Office of Dietary Supplements (2022). Calcium. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
Office of Dietary Supplements (2022). Vitamin D. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
Office of Dietary Supplements (2023). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2022). Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990-2012). https://www.fda.gov/food/environmental-contaminants-food/mercury-levels-commercial-fish-and-shellfish-1990-2012
Cleveland Clinic (2020). How Much Caffeine Is Safe During Pregnancy? https://health.clevelandclinic.org/caffeine-and-pregnancy-how-does-caffeine-affect-my-baby/