Pregnancy Diet: Foods to Avoid and Healthy Weight Gain

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The tenets of a healthy diet — plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats — remain the same when you’re pregnant.

However, several foods in pregnancy require more attention while others should be limited or avoided to support your health and promote the growth and development of your baby.

This article explains what to eat and avoid during pregnancy, discusses a healthy rate of weight gain, and provides a 3-day sample pregnancy diet menu.

pregnancy diet

Foods to eat

The need for several nutrients changes while you’re pregnant to support the growth and development of your baby.

Folate

The body requires more folate — a B vitamin — during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects, which occur when the neural tube that forms the early brain and spine does not close properly.

Folate is a B vitamin necessary for the proper development of a baby’s brain and spine.

Guidelines recommend taking a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 mg of folic acid — the synthetic form of folate — daily to help prevent neural tube defects (1).

This recommendation for supplementation is in addition to the amounts of folate you get from a healthy diet.

The increased need for folic acid starts at least one month before conception and continues through the first 2–3 months of pregnancy.

Good sources of folate include (2):

  • spinach
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • rice
  • asparagus
  • brussels sprouts
  • lettuce
  • avocado
  • broccoli
  • peas

Iron

More iron is necessary during pregnancy to support the growing baby and increase your number of red blood cells to support oxygen delivery to cells (3).

Many pregnant women fall short of iron recommendations, especially during the third trimester, which increases the risk of poor pregnancy outcomes like low birth weight or prematurity (3).

Good sources of iron include (4):

  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • oysters
  • white beans
  • lentils
  • spinach
  • oily fish
  • chickpeas
  • beef
  • potatoes
  • cashews

Your body absorbs iron from animal-based sources of iron like seafood and beef better than plant-based sources.

Even with an iron-rich diet, you may still need to supplement with iron to meet your increased needs.

Iodine

Iodine needs increase significantly during pregnancy to support the baby’s proper neurodevelopment (5).

Seafood and dairy products like yogurt and milk are the best dietary sources of iodine, but you should also use iodized table salt to flavor your foods (6).

You may need a supplement to get enough iodine, but always check the label since some prenatal supplements do not contain iodine.

Choline

Choline is another nutrient necessary to support the growth and development of your body.

However, most women don’t meet the recommended intakes of choline during pregnancy.

The best sources of choline include (7):

  • eggs
  • beef
  • soybeans
  • chicken
  • fish
  • potatoes

If you’re worried you’re not getting enough choline from your diet, ask your doctor or dietitian about a supplement.

Most prenatal supplements do not contain choline or only contain it in small amounts.

Other nutrients

In addition to folate, iron, iodine, and choline, your body requires more of several other vitamins and minerals.

Here are the other nutrients you need more of along with the best food sources for them:

  • Vitamin A: sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, oily fish, cantaloupe, sweet red peppers, mangos (8)
  • Thiamin (vitamin B1): rice, pork chops, black beans, tuna, acorn squash, fortified breakfast cereals (9)
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2): oats, yogurt, milk, beef, almonds, mushrooms, eggs, quinoa (10)
  • Niacin (vitamin B3): chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna, pork, beef, peanuts, rice, potatoes (11)
  • Vitamin B6: chickpeas, tuna, salmon, chicken, potatoes, turkey, bananas, beef, squash (12)
  • Vitamin B12: salmon, tuna, beef, milk, yogurt, eggs, turkey (13)
  • Vitamin C: sweet red pepper, oranges, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cabbage, potatoes (14)
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, ham, shrimp, beef, turkey, chicken, eggs, oatmeal, milk, yogurt (15)
  • Zinc: oysters, beef, oats, pumpkin seeds, pork, turkey, shrimp, lentils (16)

Most prenatal supplements provide these nutrients but you still should aim to eat more of these foods.

Summary

Pregnancy increases your need for a number of vitamins and minerals like folate, iron, iodine, and choline, among others, to support the growth and development of your baby.

Foods to avoid

There are several foods and nutrients that you should limit or avoid for a healthy pregnancy.

Caffeine

Excess caffeine can lead to a miscarriage, premature birth, or low birth weight.

For this reason, guidelines recommend limiting caffeine to 300 mg daily, with some research suggesting that the safe upper limit is 200 mg daily (17, 18).

This is equivalent to about 2–3 cups (440–720 mL) of coffee per day.

Other sources of caffeine include tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks.

Deli meats

Deli or lunch meats — including hot dogs — can harbor a harmful pathogen called Listeria monocytogenes, which grows well at fridge temperatures.

A Listeria infection can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature labor (19).

Due to an altered immune system, pregnant women are at a higher risk of becoming infected with Listeria.

You can safely eat deli or lunch meats if you cook them to 165ºF (74ºC).

Certain dairy products

Avoid consuming unpasteurized dairy products since they can contain harmful pathogens that can make you sick.

Unpasteurized dairy products don’t receive the heat treatment known as pasteurization that kills harmful strains of bacteria.

Unpasteurized apple cider or other juices is also unsafe to drink during pregnancy.

You should also avoid certain soft cheeses since they may also be contaminated with Listeria.

Potentially unsafe cheeses include:

  • feta
  • Camembert
  • Brie
  • queso fresco
  • queso blanco
  • panela
  • Roquefort

Safe cheese varieties include:

  • American
  • ricotta
  • cream cheese
  • cottage cheese
  • Gouda
  • Swiss
  • mozzarella
  • Colby jack
  • pepper jack
  • Monterey Jack
  • cheddar
  • American

Mercury-rich fish

You should consume 8–12 ounces of oily fish per week to support the neurodevelopment of your baby.

However, you should choose varieties lower in mercury since mercury can accumulate in your bloodstream and damage your baby’s developing brain and nervous system.

Fish rich in mercury to avoid include (20):

  • king mackerel
  • marlin
  • orange roughy
  • shark
  • swordfish
  • tilefish
  • bigeye tuna

Fish low in mercury include:

  • anchovy
  • Atlantic mackerel
  • catfish
  • clams
  • cod
  • crabs
  • haddock
  • herring
  • lobster
  • oysters
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • scallops
  • tilapia
  • freshwater tuna

Avoid consuming raw fish and always cook fish to at least 145ºF (63ºC) to kill bacteria or other pathogens that may be present.

Alcohol

No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.

Alcohol can harm the baby at any time during pregnancy, including during the first and second months when a woman may not know she is pregnant.

Summary

For a healthy pregnancy, limit your intake of caffeine and avoid uncooked deli meats, raw dairy products, certain cheeses, fish rich in mercury, and alcohol.

3-day sample pregnancy diet menu

Here’s a 3-day sample pregnancy diet menu rich in nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: cottage cheese toast topped with sliced cucumbers
  • Lunch: grilled chicken salad and apple slices
  • Snack: Greek yogurt and a handful of nuts
  • Dinner: baked salmon, white rice, and sauteed brussels sprouts

Day 2

  • Breakfast: overnight oats
  • Lunch: avocado, tomato, and chicken sandwich
  • Snack: stove-topped popcorn and orange slices
  • Dinner: pork loin, homemade sweet potatoes fries, and sauteed broccoli

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt parfait
  • Lunch: ground beef taco salad
  • Snack: roasted chickpeas and sweet pepper slices
  • Dinner: shrimp snow pea stir fry

Summary

Use this 3-day sample pregnancy diet menu to guide your meal and snack choices.

Healthy weight gain rate and calorie needs

In addition to needing more of certain nutrients, you also need more calories to support the energy requirements of you and your baby.

Calorie needs generally increase starting in your second trimester and remain elevated during lactation (21).

Stage of Pregnancy or LactationChange in Daily Calorie Needs
1st trimester+ 0 calories
2nd trimester+ 340 calories
3rd trimester+ 452 calories
First 6 months of lactation+ 330 calories
Second 6 months of lactation+ 400 calories
Increased calorie needs during pregnancy and lactation.

These estimates are intended for women with a healthy prepregnancy weight.

If you are underweight or overweight, it’s best to talk with your doctor or dietitian to determine your appropriate calorie intake.

You can meet your increased calorie needs by consuming foods rich in the nutrients your body needs.

Avoid foods rich in added sugars and saturated fats like sugary breakfast cereals, certain condiments like barbeque sauce, baked goods, chips, and other snack foods as they can increase your risk for gestational diabetes.

Pregnancy weight gain

Weight gain is a natural and healthy part of pregnancy.

The recommended amount of weight you should gain each trimester varies based on your prepregnancy body mass index (BMI).

The higher your prepregnancy BMI, the less weight you should gain (22).

Meeting weight gain goals increases the likelihood of delivering a healthy weight infant while also improving the long-term health of both you and your child.

Prepregnancy BMIBMITotal Weight GainWeight Gain, 2nd and 3rd Trimester
Underweight< 18.528–40 lbs1
Normal weight18.5–24.925–35 lbs1
Overweight25.0–29.915–25 lbs0.6
Obesity≥ 30.011–20 lbs0.5
Recommended weight gain during pregnancy.

These weight gain guidelines for pregnancy are intended for use among women in the United States.

They may be appropriate for women in other developed countries but are not intended for use in women in other parts of the world where women are significantly shorter or thinner than American women.

Summary

Calorie needs increase starting in the second trimester of pregnancy. A healthy rate of weight gain during pregnancy depends on your prepregnancy weight.

Pregnancy supplements

Of the various types of supplements, fish oil and prenatals have the most benefits for supporting a healthy pregnancy.

Fish oil

Fish oil is rich in two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Both types are essential, but DHA plays an important role in your baby’s brain development.

This is why it’s recommended to consume 8–12 ounces of oily fish during pregnancy.

When this isn’t possible, fish oil supplementation is a good, cost-effective alternative.

For example, one study demonstrated that the children of women who supplemented with 2.4 grams of fish oil at week 24 of pregnancy until one week after delivery demonstrated better measures of neurodevelopment measures like language development at 6 years old (23).

Fish oil supplements that provide no more than 5 grams per day are generally safe, but make sure to choose a reputable brand that has been third-party tested to ensure potency and purity like Wiley’s Finest (24).

Find Wiley’s Finest Prenatal DHA on Amazon.

Prenatal

The need for several nutrients increases during pregnancy.

Although food should come first, it can be challenging to get the nutrients you need from your diet alone.

For this reason, many doctors and dietitians recommend a prenatal vitamin in addition to consuming a healthy diet to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of folic acid, iron, and other nutrients (24).

Like fish oil, choose a prenatal product that is third-party tested like this one from NatureMade, which also provides a small amount of DHA.

Summary

Taking fish oil may improve the neurodevelopment of your child while taking a prenatal can ensure you’re getting enough nutrients like folic acid and iron to support a healthy pregnancy.

The bottom line

Good nutrition is necessary to support the growth and development of your baby.

Your need for several nutrients increases during pregnancy, including folate, iron, iodine, and choline, among many others.

Taking a prenatal vitamin can ensure you get enough of these nutrients but you also should follow a healthy diet.

Many prenatal supplements also contain fish oil, which can support your baby’s brain development.

Limit your intake of caffeine and avoid uncooked deli meats, raw dairy products, certain cheeses, mercury-rich fish, and alcohol.

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