Healthy eating is important during pregnancy. Good nutrition is needed to
meet the added demands on your body as well as those of your growing baby.
Eating healthy while you’re pregnant may take a little extra effort, but it will
have major benefits for you and your baby. If you already eat a balanced diet,
all you have to do is add a few extra well-chosen calories. If you have not
been eating a healthy diet, pregnancy is a great time to change old habits and
develop healthy new ones. Breastfeeding mothers need to pay careful
attention to their diets as well (see Chapter 18, “Breastfeeding and FormulaFeeding
Healthy eating also includes knowing how much you should eat. Pregnant
women used to be told to “eat for two.” This is still true—to a point.
We now know that you can’t just eat twice as much as you normally do.
Finding a balance between getting enough nutrients to fuel the baby’s
growth and maintaining a healthy weight is important for your and your
baby’s future health. A pregnant woman who has a body mass index
(BMI) in the normal range before pregnancy needs, on average, only
about 300 extra calories a day—the amount in a glass of skim milk and
half a sandwich. If you are pregnant with twins, you’ll need 600 extra
calories per day. You can calculate your BMI using an online calculator
(you can find one at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/)
or use the chart in Appendix A.
314 • NUTRITION
Balancing Your Diet
Nutrients are the building blocks of the body. Important nutrients
include proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. When you’re pregnant, you
not only need to maintain your own body with nutrients, you also need
to support the growth of your baby. Getting enough nutrients during
pregnancy safeguards your own health and contributes to your baby’s
Protein provides the nutrients your body needs to grow and repair muscles
and other tissues. Protein is found in the following foods:
• Beef, pork, and fish
• Milk, cheese, and other dairy foods
• Beans and peas
• Nuts and seeds
For vegetarians, protein can be found in nuts, seeds, nut butters, and soy
products such as tempeh and tofu. Vegetarians who include dairy products
in their diets also can get needed protein from milk and eggs.
All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the body’s main fuel that
powers all of its activities. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates
and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates provide a
quick energy boost because they are digested and absorbed rapidly. They are
found in naturally sweet foods like fruits and also can be added to foods in
the form of table sugar, honey, and maple syrup. Simple carbohydrates often
are high in calories. It is best to limit your intake of simple carbohydrates to
those found naturally in food. Stay away from sugary drinks and foods with
Complex carbohydrates include dietary fiber and starches. It takes your
body longer to process them, so complex carbohydrates provide longerlasting
energy than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are
found in bread, rice, pasta, some fruits, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 315
Fiber is found in plant foods. It is the part of the plant that your body cannot
digest. Fiber passes relatively unchanged through your digestive system.
It can help prevent constipation by adding bulk to the stool, making it easier
to pass. You should eat about 25 grams of fiber daily. The following foods are
good sources of fiber:
• Fruits (especially dried fruits, berries, oranges, apples, and peaches with
• Vegetables (such as dried beans, peas, and leafy vegetables like spinach
• Whole-grain products (such as whole-wheat bread or brown rice)
Fiber also helps maintain a stable blood glucose level because it passes slowly
through the digestive tract. Foods that do this are described as “low glycemic”
because they do not cause the blood glucose level to spike. Eating lowglycemic
foods can help you feel full and reduce the feeling of hunger. Lowglycemic
foods also may help reduce cholesterol levels and prevent diabetes.
The body needs a certain amount of fat to function normally. Some types of
fats, called omega-3 fatty acids, play an important role in brain development.
Fats also are essential to the function of the immune system, aid in blood
clotting, and help your body use vitamins A, D, E, and K.
The fat in the foods you eat is digested and sent to the liver. The liver then
assembles the fat into lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are made of cholesterol,
fats, and protein. Lipoproteins carry fat through your bloodstream for use by
or storage in other parts of the body.
There are different types of fat found in foods. You should be aware of
these different types of fat in your diet:
• Saturated fats come mainly from meat and dairy products. They tend to be
solid when chilled. Examples include butter and lard. There also are two
plant-based saturated fats: 1) palm oil and 2) coconut oil.
• Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid and come mostly from plants and
vegetables. Olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, and fish oils are all unsaturated
• Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been chemically processed to be
solid at room temperature. This is done to make foods last longer and give
them better flavor. Vegetable shortenings, margarines, crackers, cookies,
and snack foods like potato chips often contain trans fats.
316 • NUTRITION
Oils and fats give you important nutrients. During pregnancy, the fats you
eat provide energy and help build many fetal organs and the placenta. However,
too much saturated fat and trans fat can lead to health problems, including
heart disease. Fats should make up about 20–35% of your total food
intake—that’s about 6 tablespoons per day. Most of the fats and oils in your
diet should be unsaturated fats, such as olive oil and peanut oil. Limit saturated
fats, such as butter and fatty red meats, and avoid trans fats, which have
no nutritional value.
Planning Healthy Meals
It’s not hard to plan healthy meals while you are pregnant, and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it even easier by creating www.
choosemyplate.gov. The “MyPlate” web site helps everyone from dieters
and children to pregnant women learn how to make healthy food choices
at every meal.
With MyPlate, you can get a personalized nutrition and physical activity
plan by using the “SuperTracker” program. This program shows you the
foods and amounts that you need to eat each day during each trimester of
pregnancy. The amounts are calculated according to your height, prepregnancy
BMI, due date, and how much you exercise during the week. The
amounts of food are given in standard sizes that most people are familiar
with, such as cups and ounces.
The Five Food Groups
To get an idea of how MyPlate works, Table 17-1 shows the foods and amounts
that a pregnant woman with a normal BMI before pregnancy should eat for
each trimester of pregnancy. You’ll notice that food is broken down into the
following five food groups:
1. Grains—Bread, pasta, oatmeal, cereal, and tortillas are all grains. Make
one half of the grains you eat whole grains. Whole grains are those that
have not been processed and include the whole grain kernel. They include
oats, barley, quinoa, and brown rice. Look for the words “whole grain” on
the product label.
2. Fruits—Fruits can be fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. Juice that is 100%
fruit juice also counts.
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 317
Table 17-1 Daily Food Choices
Recommended daily food intake for a pregnant woman who is a normal weight and who
gets less than 30 minutes of exercise each day.
First Second Third
Trimester Trimester Trimester Comments
per day 1,800 2,200 2,400
Grains 6 ounces 7 ounces 8 ounces 1 ounce is one slice of bread,
½ cup of cooked rice, ½
cup of cooked pasta, 3 cups
of popped popcorn, or five
whole wheat crackers
Vegetables 2 ½ cups 3 cups 3 cups 2 cups of raw leafy
vegetables count as 1 cup
Fruits 1 ½ cup 2 cups 2 cups One large orange, one small
apple, eight large strawberries,
or ½ cup of dried fruit
count as 1 cup
Dairy 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups Two small slices of swiss
cheese or 1
/3 cup of
shredded cheese count
as 1 cup
Protein foods 5 ounces 6 ounces 6 ½ ounces 1 ounce lean meat or
poultry, one egg, 1 tablespoon
peanut butter, or
½ ounce of nuts or
seeds count as 1 ounce
Fats and oils 5 teaspoons 7 teaspoons 8 teaspoons Olives, some fish, avocados,
3. Vegetables—Vegetables can be raw or cooked, frozen, canned, dried, or
100% vegetable juice. Make sure that you get a mixture of dark green,
orange, starchy, and other vegetables, including dry beans and peas.
4. Dairy—Milk and products made from milk, such as cheese, yogurt, and ice
cream, make up the dairy group. Make sure any dairy foods you eat are
pasteurized (see the section “Food Safety” in this chapter for information
about foodborne illnesses) and choose fat-free or low-fat (1%) varieties.
5. Protein Foods—Protein foods include meat, poultry, seafood, beans and
peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Include a variety of proteins in your diet and
choose lean or low-fat meat and poultry.
318 • NUTRITION
Key Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals play important roles in all parts of your body. During
pregnancy, you need more folic acid and iron than a woman who is not pregnant
(see Table 17-2). Taking a prenatal vitamin supplement can ensure that
you are getting these extra amounts. A well-rounded diet should supply all of
the other vitamins and minerals you need during pregnancy.
Table 17-2 Key Vitamins and Minerals During Pregnancy
Recommended Why You and
Amount) Your Baby Need It Best Sources
Calcium Builds strong bones Milk, cheese, yogurt, sardines, green
(1,300 mg for ages and teeth leafy vegetables
14–18 years; 1,000 mg
for ages 19–50 years)
Iron Helps red blood cells Lean red meat, poultry, fish, dried beans
(27 mg) deliver oxygen to your and peas, iron-fortified cereals,
baby prune juice
Vitamin A Forms healthy skin and Carrots, green leafy vegetables,
(750 micrograms for eyesight; helps with sweet potatoes
ages 14–18 years; bone growth
770 micrograms for
ages 19–50 years)
Vitamin C Promotes healthy Citrus fruit, broccoli, tomatoes,
(80 mg for ages gums, teeth, and bones strawberries
14–18 years; 85 mg
for ages 19–50 years)
Vitamin D Builds your baby’s Sunlight, fortified milk, fatty fish such as
(600 international bones and teeth; salmon and sardines
units) helps promote healthy
eyesight and skin
Vitamin B6 Helps form red blood Beef, liver, pork, ham, whole-grain
(1.9 mg) cells; helps body use cereals, bananas
protein, fat, and
Vitamin B12 Maintains nervous Meat, fish, poultry, milk (vegetarians
(2.6 micrograms) system; needed to should take a supplement)
form red blood cells
Folic acid Helps prevent birth Green leafy vegetables, orange juice,
(600 micrograms) defects of the brain beans, fortified cereals, enriched
and spine and supports bread and pasta, nuts
the general growth and
development of the
fetus and placenta
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 319
Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin that is important for pregnant
women. Taking 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid daily for at least
1 month before pregnancy and during pregnancy may help prevent major
birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine called neural tube defects.
Current dietary guidelines recommend that pregnant women get at least
600 micrograms of folic acid each day from all sources, including food and
vitamin supplements. Many foods contain folic acid, such as fortified cereal,
enriched bread and pasta, peanuts, dark green leafy vegetables, orange juice,
and beans. However, it may be hard to get all of the folic acid you need from
food alone. To ensure they are getting enough, pregnant women should take
a daily vitamin supplement that contains folic acid. Most prenatal multivitamin
supplements contain 600–800 micrograms of folic acid.
Some women may need a higher amount of folic acid each day. If you have
already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect or if you are taking
an antiseizure medication, talk with your health care provider to make sure
you get the right amount.
Iron is used by your body to make a substance in red blood cells that carries
oxygen to your organs and tissues. During pregnancy, you need more iron
than you did before pregnancy. This extra iron helps your body make more
blood to supply oxygen to your baby. Not having enough iron is called irondeficiency
anemia. Anemia increases the risk of certain problems, including
preterm delivery and having a low-birth-weight baby.
The recommended daily intake for iron during pregnancy is 27 mg, which
is found in most prenatal vitamin supplements. You also can eat foods rich in
a certain type of iron called heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed more easily by
the body and is found in animal foods, such as red meat, poultry, and fish.
Your blood will be tested during pregnancy to check for anemia. If you are
found to be anemic, your health care provider may recommend additional
Calcium is used to build your baby’s bones and teeth. All women aged
19 years and older should get 1,000 mg of calcium each day. For those aged
14–18 years, the recommended amount is 1,300 mg a day. Milk and other
320 • NUTRITION
dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, are the best sources of calcium. If
you have trouble digesting milk products, you can get calcium from other
sources, such as broccoli, fortified orange juice, sardines or anchovies with
the bones, or a calcium supplement.
Vitamin D works with calcium to help build your baby’s bones and teeth. It
also is key for healthy skin and eyesight. While you’re pregnant or breastfeeding,
you need 600 international units of vitamin D each day. Most prenatal
vitamins have about 400 international units of vitamin D per tablet.
You can get the extra amounts of vitamin D from your diet. Good sources
are vitamin D-fortified milk and breakfast cereal, salmon, and egg yolks. Also,
exposure to sunlight converts a chemical in the skin to vitamin D. Many
women, however, still do not get enough vitamin D every day. If your health
care provider thinks you may have low levels of vitamin D, a test can be done
to check the level in your blood. If it is below normal, you may need to take a
vitamin D supplement.
Putting It All Together
All of this advice can seem overwhelming. The following tips can help guide
you when you are making food choices and ensure that you’re eating in a
• Make one half of your plate fruits and vegetables.
• Switch to skim milk or 1% milk.
• Make one half of your grains whole grains.
• Vary your protein sources. Eat fish 2–3 times a week (see the section
“Fish and Shellfish” later in this chapter for information about the types
of fish to choose), and choose lean meats and poultry. Vegetarians can
get protein from a wide variety of plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds,
and soy products.
• Limit foods with “empty” calories. These are foods that have a lot of calories
but little nutritional value, such as candy, chips, and sugary drinks.
• Take a vitamin supplement that contains 600 micrograms of folic acid and
27 mg of iron.
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 321
When planning your meals, remember
to add snacks, which are a good
way to get needed nutrition and
extra calories. Pick snacks that have
the right nutrients and that are low
in fat and sugar. Fruit, cereal, and
yogurt are healthy snack choices.
You may find it easier to eat six
smaller meals spread out over the
day than to try to consume your necessary
nutrients and calories in
three larger meals, especially later
on in pregnancy when you may be
experiencing indigestion after eating
larger meals. To make these mini
meals, just divide the daily recommended
amount of foods from each
of the food groups into small portions.
Milk and half a sandwich
made with meat, fish, peanut butter, or cheese with lettuce and tomato make
an excellent mini meal. Other ideas are low-fat milk and fresh fruits, cheese
and crackers, and soups.
Weight Gain During Pregnancy
The amount of weight you should gain depends on your health and your BMI
before pregnancy. Recommendations for weight gain for women who are
pregnant with twins are somewhat higher (see Table 17-3).
Weight gain during pregnancy should be gradual. During your first
12 weeks of pregnancy—the first trimester—you may gain only 1–5 pounds or
no weight at all. In your second and third trimesters, if you were a healthy
weight before pregnancy, you should gain between ½ pound and 1 pound
The key to gradual weight gain is to slowly increase the number of calories
you consume throughout your pregnancy. In the first trimester, when weight
gain is minimal, no extra calories usually are needed. In the second trimester,
you need an extra 340 calories a day, and in the third trimester, about 450
extra calories a day. Keep in mind that these amounts are for women who
were a normal weight before pregnancy. If you were overweight or obese,
you may need fewer extra calories.
My Plate. What should your plate look like?
Half of your plate should be fruits and
vegetables. The other half should be lean
protein and whole grains. You also should take
a prenatal vitamin supplement containing folic
acid and iron each day. Courtesy of United
States Department of Agriculture Center
for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
322 • NUTRITION
You will have your weight checked at each prenatal care visit, and your
health care provider will keep track of how much weight you have gained. A
woman who gains too few pounds is more likely to have a small baby (less
than 5½ pounds). These babies often have health problems after birth.
Women who gain too much weight also are at risk of health problems. These
problems include gestational diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and a
baby that’s too large (macrosomia).
If you are overweight or gaining weight too quickly, it may be necessary to
adjust your nutrition and exercise plan. Talk to your health care provider
first before making any major changes. Usually, you can start by cutting down
on the “extra” calories that you consume from extra fats and sugars. Watch
your portion size, and avoid second helpings. Focus on eating foods that have
lots of nutrients, such as beans, leafy greens, and nuts.
Certain foods, diets, or health conditions often cause some pregnant women
to be concerned about their diets. Being aware of these concerns is important.
Fish and Shellfish
Fish and shellfish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Three of these
fatty acids—DHA, EPA, and ALA—are considered “essential,” meaning that
Table 17-3 Weight Gain During Pregnancy
Total Weight Gain Rate of Weight Gain Weight Gain
Prepregnancy During Pregnancy in the Second and During Pregnancy
Body Mass With a Single Baby Third Trimesters* With Twins
Index (in Pounds) (Pounds per Week) (in Pounds)
Underweight 28–40 1.0–1.3 —
(BMI less than 18.5)
Normal weight 25–35 0.8–1.0 37–54
(BMI 18.5 –24.9)
Overweight 15–25 0.5–0.7 31–50
(BMI 25 –29.9)
Obese 11–20 0.4–0.6 25–42
(BMI more than 30)
Abbreviation: BMI, body mass index.
*Assumes a first-trimester weight gain between 1.1 pounds and 4.4 pounds.
Data from Institute of Medicine. Weight gain during pregnancy: reexamining the guidelines. Washington, DC:
National Academies Press; 2009.
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 323
they are not manufactured by the body and are supplied by diet alone. There
is strong scientific evidence to suggest that these fats are important in the
development of the fetal nervous system. Fish are also a good source of protein
and other nutrients. To gain these benefits, women who are or who may
become pregnant or who are breastfeeding should eat at least 8 ounces and up
to 12 ounces (about two to three servings) of fish or shellfish per week.
Some types of fish have higher levels of a metal called mercury than others.
Mercury has been linked to birth defects. To limit your exposure to
mercury, follow a few simple rules. Choose fish that are lower in mercury,
such as shrimp, salmon, catfish, canned light tuna (not albacore, which has
a higher level of mercury), and sardines. Do not eat shark, swordfish, king
mackerel, or tilefish, which have the highest levels of mercury. If you want
to eat albacore tuna, limit the amount to 6 ounces a week. If you eat fish
caught in local waters, check any advisories about mercury or other pollutants
(see the “Resources” section in this chapter). If no information is available,
limit your intake of such fish to 6 ounces a week, and do not eat any
other fish that week.
Although there have been many studies on whether caffeine increases the
risk of miscarriage, the results are unclear. Most experts believe that consuming
less than 200 mg of caffeine a day during pregnancy is safe. That is
equal to one 12-ounce cup of coffee.
Remember that caffeine also is found in teas, colas, and chocolate. Make
sure you count these sources in your total caffeine for the day.
There are different types of vegetarians—some include dairy products in
their diets and others strictly avoid all products that come from animals. If
you are a vegetarian, it still is possible to get all of the nutrients you and your
baby need during pregnancy. It just takes extra planning. It’s a good idea to
tell your health care provider at your first prenatal care visit that you are a
vegetarian and ask for a recommended diet plan you can follow. The following
tips can help you maximize the key nutrients you need while still eating
a vegetarian diet:
• Make sure you get enough protein from foods such as soy milk, tofu, and
beans. Eggs, milk, and cheese also are good protein sources if you eat some
324 • NUTRITION
• Eat lots of iron-rich vegetables and legumes, such as spinach, white beans,
kidney beans, and chickpeas. You can increase the amount of iron that
your body absorbs if you also eat foods high in vitamin C, like oranges or
tomatoes, at the same time that you eat an iron-rich food.
• To get the recommended amount of calcium if you don’t eat dairy foods,
eat dark leafy greens, calcium-enriched tofu, and other calcium-enriched
products (soy milk, rice milk, and orange juice).
• Vitamin B12 can be obtained by eating cereals that are fortified with this
vitamin or by drinking milk.
Women who have trouble digesting dairy products can get calcium from
other foods, including seeds, nuts, and soy. Lactose-free milk, cheese, and
other dairy products also are available in grocery stores. Talk with your
health care provider if you are having trouble consuming the recommended
1,000 mg each day. You may be advised to take a calcium supplement.
Women who have celiac disease are unable to eat foods containing gluten,
which is found in wheat, barley, and rye. There are many foods that are gluten
free, so pregnant women with celiac disease can choose fruits, vegetables,
meats, potatoes, poultry, and beans. There also are many gluten-free products
sold in grocery and natural food stores or online.
Pregnant women can get food poisoning just like anyone else. However, food
poisoning in a pregnant woman can cause serious problems for both her and
her baby. Vomiting and diarrhea can cause your body to lose too much water
and can disrupt your body’s chemical balance. Several types of bacteria can
cause food poisoning. It’s important to contact your health care provider as
soon as you have these signs and symptoms.
Listeriosis is a type of food-borne illness caused by bacteria. Pregnant
women are 13 times more likely to get listeriosis than the general population.
Listeriosis can cause mild, flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches,
and diarrhea, but it also may not cause any symptoms at all. However, it can
lead to serious complications for your baby, including miscarriage, stillbirth,
NUTRITION DURING PREGNANCY • 325
and premature delivery. If you think you have eaten food contaminated with
this bacteria or if you have any of the symptoms of listeriosis, call your health
care provider. Antibiotics can be given to treat the infection and protect your
baby. To help prevent getting the bacteria, avoid eating the following foods
while you’re pregnant:
• Unpasteurized milk and foods made with unpasteurized milk, including
soft cheeses such as feta, queso blanco, queso fresco, Camembert, Brie, or
blue-veined cheeses unless the label says “made with pasteurized milk.”
• Hot dogs, luncheon meats, and cold cuts unless they are heated until
steaming hot just before serving.
• Refrigerated pâté and meat spreads
• Refrigerated smoked seafood
While you are pregnant, avoid all raw and undercooked seafood, eggs, and
meat. Do not eat sushi made with raw fish (cooked sushi is safe). In addition,
follow these four steps for food safety:
– Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handing raw
– Wash fruits and vegetables under running tap water before eating, cutting,
– Keep your kitchen clean. Wash your utensils, countertops, and cutting
boards with soap and hot water after handling and preparing uncooked
foods. You can sanitize them by applying a solution of 1 teaspoon of
liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Allow the surface to air dry.
– Keep raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood and their juices away from
– Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from produce in your shopping
cart by placing them into plastic bags.
– Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood on a plate, in a container, or in a
sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.
– Use a separate cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
– Never put cooked food back on the same plate that previously held raw
food unless the plate has been washed in hot, soapy water. Do not use
sauce used to marinate raw food on cooked food unless it is boiled first.
326 • NUTRITION
– Use a food thermometer to check doneness of meat, poultry, seafood,
and egg products. These items should be cooked to a safe minimum temperature
– Place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, away from
bone, fat, and gristle.
– Keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below and the freezer at 0°F or below.
– Thaw food in the refrigerator, microwave, or in cold (not hot) water.
– Do not leave food at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour
when the temperature is above 90°F).
– Meat and poultry defrosted in the refrigerator may be refrozen before
or after cooking. If thawed in the microwave or cold water, cook before
– Only buy eggs from a refrigerator or refrigerated case. Store eggs in the
refrigerator in their original carton and use within 3–5 weeks.
– When selecting precut produce, choose only those items that are
refrigerated or surrounded by ice and keep them refrigerated at home
to maintain both quality and safety.
Eating well during your pregnancy is one of the best things you can do for
yourself and your baby. Start now on balancing healthy eating with maintaining
a healthy weight to give your baby the best start in life.