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Having a healthy diet is vital during pregnancy. Optimal nutrition can help a person meet the increased physical demands of pregnancy and help the fetus develop.

For a healthy pregnancy, a person’s diet should include a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

However, some foods and drinks, such as alcohol and some cheeses, can have a detrimental effect on a pregnant person’s health and the eventual health of their baby.

In this article, we describe what to prioritize and what to avoid for a healthy pregnancy.

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Medical professionals recommend having a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods, including various animal and plant-based proteins, fruits, grains, and vegetables during pregnancy.

They recommend prioritizing the following foods:

Fruit and vegetables

Currently, around 90% of the United States population does not get the daily recommended intake of vegetables. To follow the national guidelines, aim for around 2 .5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day.

A person can hit these targets by consuming a variety of fresh, frozen, or canned produce and 100% fruit juices. However, if possible, opt for whole, fresh or frozen fruit rather than juice.

Learn more about the best fruits to eat during pregnancy.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash, whole grains such as farro and buckwheat, and legumes, such as beans or chickpeas.

Opt for these rather than refined carbohydrates, which are in white breads, pastas, and rice whenever possible.

Also, pregnant people with high blood sugar may need to monitor their carbohydrate intake carefully. A person’s medical team, including their obstetrician-gynecologist and a registered dietitian, can help develop an optimal carbohydrate target for each person.

Complex carbohydrates provide energy and are a good source of fiber, which is important during pregnancy.

Learn more about what distinguishes complex carbohydrates.

Protein

Pregnancy is a period of rapid growth and development. As a result, getting the optimal amount of protein is critical.

During pregnancy, it is important to focus on a range of protein sources as part of a balanced diet.

The following are good plant-based sources of protein:

Learn more about plant-based proteins here.

Animal-based protein, from chicken, fish, beef, or eggs, for example, can also be a part of a healthy pregnancy diet, and these contain all essential amino acids.

Learn more about the differences between plant-based and animal proteins here.

Fats

Fats are an integral part of any healthy diet and play a key role during pregnancy. However, the types of fat are important. For example, getting omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is critical during pregnancy.

Additionally, high intakes of saturated fat can increase the risk of pregnancy complications.

A person can safely consume some saturated fats during pregnancy, but for optimal health, they should have unsaturated fats more often.

Learn about the differences between saturated and unsaturated fats.

Examples of foods rich in polyunsaturated fats include:

  • fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, and trout
  • flaxseeds and sunflower seeds
  • walnuts

Discover more foods rich in polyunsaturated fats here.

Fiber

Whole grain foods such as oats, brown rice, beans and lentils, fruit, and vegetables are rich in fiber. These foods contribute to overall gut health and can help people feel fuller for longer.

Having a diet high in fiber can also reduce the risk of developing complications associated with pregnancy, such as hemorrhoids and constipation.

Nutrient needs during pregnancy

A person needs more water- and fat-soluble vitamins during pregnancy and lactation. This includes folate, choline, and vitamins B12, A, and D, among others.

Doctors typically advise people to take prenatal supplements before, during, and after pregnancy in order to maintain healthy nutrient levels and support their bodies through postnatal recovery.

Iron makes up a significant part of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying pigment and main protein in red blood cells.

During pregnancy, the amount of blood in the body increases by almost 50%. To make the additional hemoglobin in this blood, the body needs more iron.

If iron stores are inadequate, a pregnant person may develop anemia. This increases the risk of:

Also, if anemia develops later in the pregnancy, there is a higher risk of the person losing blood when they give birth.

The following foods are rich sources of iron:

  • lean meats
  • poultry
  • salmon
  • legumes
  • dark green vegetables

To help prevent illnesses and other complications during a pregnancy, avoid:

  • Seafood that contains mercury: Avoid shark, swordfish, and marlin, or keep the intake to an absolute minimum.
  • Uncooked or partially cooked meats: Opt for thoroughly cooked meats.
  • Uncooked shellfish: This is due to a risk of bacterial or viral contamination, which can cause food poisoning.
  • Raw eggs: Avoid these and any foods that contain them.
  • Soft, mold-ripened cheese: Cheeses such as brie and camembert carry a risk of Listeria contamination. Listeria is a group of bacteria that can cause potentially fatal infections in pregnant people and their babies.

Should pregnant people completely stop drinking alcohol?

There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. It is safest to drink none at all.

Alcohol in the blood passes to the fetus via the umbilical cord, and too much exposure to alcohol can seriously undermine fetal development.

Also, there is a risk that the baby will develop a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This can result in vision or hearing problems, issues with attention, and low body weight, among other complications.

Should pregnant people avoid caffeine?

Consuming too much caffeine during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, fetal development issues, and a low birth weight.

A caffeine intake as low as 100–200 milligrams (mg) per day could have a negative effect on fetal development. The underlying reasons for this remain unclear.

Many foods and drinks other than coffee contain caffiene. Examples include some sodas, energy drinks, chocolate, and teas. Some cold and flu remedies also contain caffeine. A doctor, nurse, or pharmacist can provide more guidance about which medicines are safe.

Gaining the right amount of weight during pregnancy is important for the baby’s health. The best amount depends on a person’s body mass index (BMI). We give more information below.

However, these are only recommendations. A doctor can can provide specific targets for each person based on their health.

Recommended weight a person expecting a single baby should gain.Recommended weight a person expecting twins should gain.
BMI of less than 18.528–40 pounds (lb)50–62 lb
BMI of 18.5-24.925–35 lb37–54 lb
BMI of 25-29.915–25 lb31–50 lb
BMI of more than 3011–20 lb25–42 lb

A person needs more of almost all the water- and fat-soluble nutrients during pregnancy. As a result, medical professionals recommend taking prenatal supplements before, during, and after a pregnancy to support health and recovery.

A well-rounded prenatal supplement contains all the necessary nutrients. These include, but are not limited to:

A person can shop for prenatal supplements here.

Iron

A pregnant person should be consuming 27 mg of iron per day. Most people can get enough from a healthy diet. However, supplements can help.

Folate

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a person should consume 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid per day up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Vitamin D

Studies estimate that 18–84% of pregnant people worldwide have a vitamin D deficiency.

Current guidelines state that a person requires 15 mcg, or 600 international units (IU), of vitamin D daily during pregnancy. However, some health professionals believe this target to be too low.

Some researchers have found that pregnant people need closer to 4,000 IU per day in order to maintain optimal vitamin D levels. People who are breast- or chestfeeding need around 6,400 IU per day.

Zinc

Taking zinc supplements during pregnancy may slightly reduce the risk of preterm birth. Getting 11–12 mcg per day may be enough.

Choline

Choline is important for the health of the pregnant person and their baby. Studies show that most pregnant women in the U.S. do not get the recommended 450 mg of choline per day. Many prenatal vitamins do not contain it, so getting enough from the diet, such as from eggs and shitake mushrooms, is crucial.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A, or retinol, is essential for health during pregnancy, but too much can be harfmul. During pregnancy, a person should consume 750–770 mcg of retinol or retinol activity equivalents (RAE).

Vitamin A occurs in various forms. RAE measures the relative amount of the vitamin in these various forms.

One RAE is typically equivalent to:

  • 1 mcg of retinol
  • 12 mcg of beta carotene from food
  • 2 mcg of beta carotene from supplements
  • 3.33 IU of vitamin A

Omega-3s

Omega-3s are critical for natal development and a person’s overall health during pregnancy.

Increasing the intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy may reduce the incidence of preterm birth. A person can do this through their diet or through supplements.

Pregnancy increases the physical demands on the body. A person can tailor their diet to meet these demands and support fetal development.

A pregnancy nutrition plan should include:

  • the optimal protein intake, from plant and animal sources, such as fish, chicken, eggs, and lentils
  • fiber-rich carbohydrates, from sources such as oats, sweet potatoes, and fruit
  • healthy fats, from sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and yogurt

In addition, a prenatal supplement can help provide the necessary nutrients for pregnancy, breast- or chestfeeding, and postnatal recovery.

Healthcare professionals recommend limiting or completely avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and undercooked meat and eggs during pregnancy.

Also, a person’s religious and ethical beliefs may shape what they eat during pregnancy. It is always a good idea to consult a doctor when planning a pregnancy diet.

Read the article in Spanish.