It can feel a little overwhelming at times with lots of conflicting advice, so we’ve done the research for you and listed everything you need to know about what to eat when you’re expecting!
From golden rules about what you should be eating, to the truth about nuts and even a handy guide on what you should be eating more of during certain periods of your pregnancy, we’ve got everything you need to eat for you and your baby covered.
Some golden rules for what to eat when pregnant
According to the NHS, although you don’t need to go on a specific ‘pregnancy diet’ it’s important to make sure you’re getting the right balance of nutrients for you and your baby. Some other rules to remember:
- Even if you’re hungrier than usual, you don’t need to ‘eat for two’ – even if you are expecting twins or triplets (sorry!).
- Make sure you eat a healthy breakfast every day, which will help you to avoid snacking on foods that are high in fat and sugar.
- It’s best to get vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat, but when you’re pregnant you need to take some supplements as well, so you know you’re getting everything you and the baby need.
- Starchy foods (carbs) should make up just over a third of what you eat. Choose wholegrain instead of processed (white) kids, or potatoes with their skins on.
- Wash fruit, vegetables and salads to remove all traces of soil, which may contain toxoplasma, a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis.
The must eat foods when you are pregnant
The NHS recommends that pregnant women eat ‘two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish such as salmon, sardines or mackerel’. Fish is a great source of protein, and salmon, sardines and mackerel also contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids – known to contribute to healthy brain function and aid the heart, joints and general wellbeing.
We all know how important calcium is for strong and healthy bones, and for you and your baby this starts before they’ve even arrived in the world. Greek yogurt is a great option for pregnant ladies because not only does it have twice the protein of normal yogurt, but it’s also a great source of calcium. ‘The goal during pregnancy is to make sure you provide everything your baby needs without sacrificing your own health and nutrition,’ explains dietitian Kate Geagan to Baby Center. ‘Calcium will help keep your own bones intact while laying down a healthy skeleton for your baby.’
Bananas are great for pregnant ladies, particularly in the first trimester explains Anar Allidina, a registered dietitian, for Huffington Post. ‘Having bananas during the early weeks of pregnancy may help with nausea that many women experience’, Anar says. They’re also a great source of vitamin B6, fibre, vitamin C and potassium.
Eggs are another great source of protein and good for pregnant women but it’s important to note that they do need to be cooked properly, raw eggs can cause food poisoning, which is particularly dangerous for expectant mothers.
– Raw eggs
– Eggs with runny yolks – Any food that contains raw eggs and is uncooked or only lightly cooked
Berries, including blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, not only make tasty snacks or great toppings for cereal and yogurt, but they’re good for pregnant folk too! Berries are packed with vitamin C, potassium, folate (a B vitamin you need to make red blood cells) and fibre. It is important, however, to make sure you wash them carefully before eating.
Chickpeas, lentils, black beans and soybeans are all great sources of fibre, protein, iron, folate, calcium and zinc. Beans contain more protein and fibre than veggies, and considering pregnant women need about 70 grams of protein per day, you might want to think about stocking up on the beans!
Official advise used to be that women should avoid peanuts during their pregnancy, but this was only if there was a history of allergy in the family. It is now known to be safe to eat all types of nuts when pregnant. Nuts are full of important minerals such as copper, manganese, magnesium, selenium, zinc, potassium, calcium and vitamin E, making them a great (and filling) on-the-go snack!
Sweet potato fans, we have good news! Sweet potatoes get their orange color from something called carotenoids, which are plant pigments that are then converted to vitamin A in your body. They also contain vitamic C, which helps you absorb the iron essential for the good health of your baby during pregnancy.
Grains (whole wheat, oats, rice, corn and barley) are packed full of nutrients like iron, selenium, and magnesium. They’re also an especially good source of the B vitamins (including B1, B2, folic acid and niacin) your growing baby needs. Wholegrains in particular – wholewheat bread or brown rice, for example – are best as they contain the most fibre, vitamins, and nutrients.
Dark green leafy veg (like spinach, kale and Swiss chard) is packed full of vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins A, C and K, as well as the all-important folate we mentioned before. These vitamins have also been found to promote eye health.
We’re going to talk about protein again! You can make lean meats a great source of your daily protein intake, as it contains the vital amino acids you need for healthy cells in yours and your baby’s body. ‘Look for lean meats with the fat trimmed off’, says Karin Hosenfeld of North Dallas Nutrition. ‘When buying red meat in particular, look for cuts that are around 95 to 98 percent fat free.’
What to eat for certain periods of your pregnancy
What to eat when 1-4 weeks pregnant
Folic acid is essential during this period, and ideally should be taken for six weeks before you conceive. In the first 28 days of pregnancy, there’s lots of cell division in the embryo, and neural tubes are developing.
Folic acid reduces the risks of spina bifida, birth defects, miscarriage and low birth weight. You should take a supplement of at least 400mcg daily throughout your pregnancy, as it’s difficult to get enough from food alone.
During these early days, the inner-layer cells of the embryo will become your baby, and the outer layer of cells the placenta. Research shows that the growth of the placenta is directly linked with the mum’s food intake and that a healthy, well-nourished woman builds a better placenta.
The placenta is the nutrition highway between you and your baby, so ensure your diet is packed with nutrient-dense fresh and unprocessed foods.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to cut out all the nutrient-zappers such as alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine, as toxins from these can pass through the placenta to your baby.
What to eat when 5-12 weeks pregnant
During the second month, you may start to experience nausea and food aversions or pregnancy cravings. Trust your instinct on this, as you may just be hankering after what your baby needs, eg, steak = iron, or milk = calcium.
You can help reduce the effects of morning sickness by increasing your levels of zinc and vitamin B6. Sip ginger tea and snack on nuts and seeds.
Feeling exhausted is a major complaint during this time, and it’s not surprising with all that’s going on inside you. To ease this feeling of fatigue, choose energy-givers rather than energy-sappers.
Switch from all white refined foods such as bread, rice and pasta to wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta, as these help to balance blood-sugar levels. Avoid sugary foods and caffeinated drinks, and try to eat every four hours. Drink plenty of fluids, including water and fresh vegetable juices. And take that afternoon nap when you can.
What to eat when 13-16 weeks pregnant
While the first 12 weeks focus mainly on developing organs, skeleton, tissue and cells, this trimester concentrates on your baby’s rapid growth. Aim to eat around 300 extra calories each day to support this – that’s the equivalent of an apple, a piece of wholemeal toast and a glass of milk. You may be averaging a weight gain of around 1/2-1lb a week.
You can suffer from constipation at any time in pregnancy, as hormones slow down the movement of food in your intestines, to allow more absorption from the food. But as your baby starts to grow during this trimester, she may begin to put pressure on your intestines.
To help move things along, eat plenty of fibrous foods, drink at least 8 glasses of water a day, take up gentle exercise such as swimming or walking and avoid caffeine as it dehydrates the body further. If all this fails, soak a dessert spoonful of linseeds in water overnight and drink the liquid every morning until the symptoms have passed.
What to eat when 16-24 weeks pregnant
Your baby’s senses are developing now. Hearing develops at 16 weeks, although the ear isn’t fully formed until the 24th week, and towards the end of this trimester her eyes begin to open.
Vitamin A plays an important role in visual and hearing development. Vegetable sources of vitamin A, called betacarotene, are the safest. So add carrots and yellow peppers to the menu.
What to eat when 24-28 weeks pregnant
Towards the end of the second trimester, your enlarged uterus takes up space usually occupied by the digestive system, and may push against your stomach. This could be why almost 80% of pregnant women suffer heartburn.
Normally, foods are mixed with gastric acids in the stomach and move on down to the intestines. With the pressure of the baby, however, this acidic mix can move up the oesophagus instead, causing a burning feeling in your chest.
To avoid further aggravation, eat smaller, more frequent meals, avoid spicy or fatty foods, carbonated drinks, processed meats, alcohol and coffee.
Try to eat at least 3 hours before bedtime and chew slowly. It’s a good idea to sleep with your head raised, as this helps prevent the digested contents of your stomach from moving up towards the oesophagus.
What to eat when 29-34 weeks pregnant
You’re now transferring even more essential fatty acids for your baby’s developing brain, more calcium for bones and teeth and more iron to protect against anaemia after birth.
It’s important during this trimester to continue to eat a highly nutritious diet otherwise the body transfers all its stores to the baby, leaving you feeling exhausted. Put oily fish, nuts, seeds, lean red meat, pulses, dark green leafy veg and natural yogurt on the menu.
During this time your baby will double in size and will demand more calories from you. So you should continue to eat around 300 extra calories each day. A steady weight gain is essential, as too little may mean that your baby risks being premature. But gaining too much weight is not advisable, either. This is the time when fat cells are laid down and too much excess fat from you could mean that your baby may battle with weight problems for life.
Beware of hidden fats in cakes and biscuits, and remember that sugar turns to fat. So when you snack, it’s best to opt for fresh fruit, nuts, seeds and healthy cereal bars.
What to eat when 35-40 weeks pregnant
Giving birth has been compared to running a marathon in terms of energy requirements. Prepare 2 weeks before you’re due by stocking up on complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables and wholemeal breads, as these are the body’s main energy source.
By the end of this trimester your baby weighs about 7lb 5oz, but you may have gained around 28lb. Don’t worry! Most of it is fluid, increased blood volume and placenta. Excess fat is needed in preparation for breastfeeding – the best start your baby can have in life.
Note: Check with your GP or midwife before you make any changes to your diet or exercise programmes. Any supplements should be monitored and supervised by your GP, midwife or a qualified nutritional therapist.