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Healthy pregnancy diet: What food is and isn’t safe to eat during pregnancy?

When it comes to planning a pregnancy diet, there’s a lot of confusing information available about what you can and can’t eat. We speak to a nutritionist and do the research to help you separate fact from fiction about what a healthy pregnancy diet really involves.

Pregnancy diet

What we eat is important at any time in our lives, but nutrition during pregnancy is particularly critical. We’ve all heard the expression “eating for two,” and while that doesn’t quite mean that you need to double your intake of food (phew!), it does mean that you need to consider what counts as a healthy pregnancy diet, for both you and your growing baby.

But what exactly is a healthy pregnancy diet? In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the principles of pregnancy nutrition and break down everything you need to know about what food is safe to eat as well as the food to avoid during your pregnancy. 

There’s a lot of information to take in, and we know it can be overwhelming, so it might help to make a pregnancy diet chart or list to stick on the fridge to help you figure out what’s what. And as always, if you have any questions or concerns, reach out to your health care provider.

With that in mind, let’s get started. We’ve dug through the research and enlisted the expert help of nutritionist Laura Cordella to separate fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition during pregnancy.

The importance of nutrition during pregnancy

It’s important to be mindful of your nutrition during pregnancy for both your own health and the health of your baby. Experts recommend that you follow a healthy pregnancy diet to help your baby grow and develop, while also boosting your own health, too. So let’s take a closer look at what exactly a healthy pregnancy diet comprises.

What nutrients are essential during pregnancy?

You’ve probably already heard about the benefits of including folate and folic acid in your pregnancy diet. “In addition to a diet rich in folate, it is generally recommended to take a daily prenatal vitamin supplement that contains a minimum of 0.4 mg (400 mcg) of folic acid,” explains Cordella. This allows you to meet the increased amount of folic acid you need during pregnancy, a total of around 600 mcg. As a B vitamin, folate can help to protect your baby from developing serious problems in their brain or spinal cord. Lots of foods contain folate, from leafy, dark green vegetables to citrus fruits and dried beans, so these are all ideal foods to add to your shopping cart when planning your pregnancy diet menu. Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate that comes in the form of a supplement, and evidence suggests that it can lower the risks of both premature birth and your baby being born with a low birth weight. 

You can start thinking about folate and folic acid if you’re trying to conceive, too. “It is suggested that you start taking a supplement containing folic acid at least one to two months prior to conception or as soon as you find out you are pregnant,” adds Cordella. Just remember to always speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements. 

Of course, folate and folic acid aren’t the only nutrients to consider. Medical experts also recommend that you include calcium, vitamin D, choline, iron, and essential omega-3 fatty acids in your pregnancy diet plan.And again, because it bears repeating, remember to always speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements, including folic acid.

A healthy pregnancy diet: What might this look like?

Now that we know what nutrients to consider during pregnancy, what does a healthy pregnancy diet actually look like? “Throughout pregnancy, the focus should be placed on a balanced diet,” explains Cordella. A balanced diet includes adequate calories, lean protein, healthy unsaturated fats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, in addition to staying adequately hydrated,” explains Cordella. It’s also important to keep in mind that you’re recommended to take prenatal vitamins in addition to following a healthy diet, as food and drink alone don’t provide all the necessary nutrients to support a pregnancy.

It’s also worth noting that calorie needs increase throughout the second and third trimesters of your pregnancy; although, Cordella explains that you don’t “typically need to increase your caloric intake” during the first trimester. Cordella breaks it down:

  • “Approximately an additional 340 calories per day are suggested during the second trimester.  
  • “Approximately an additional 450 calories per day are suggested during the third trimester. 

“These suggestions may be individualized depending on prepregnancy nutritional status, so always refer to the recommendations provided to you by your medical team,” she adds.

While this might sound like a lot of additional calories to consume each day, Cordella emphasizes the importance of listening to your body’s growing need for energy and trying not to follow any restrictive diets during this time, such as a low-carb diet or a pregnancy diet plan to lose weight. “Self-imposed dietary restraint during pregnancy can contribute to poor health outcomes for mom and baby,” she explains. “Pregnancy is not a time to start following a restrictive diet and can lead to more harm than intended benefit.”

Remember that weight gain is completely normal during pregnancy, and everyone will experience this in a different way. “Pregnant women can gain weight at different rates throughout pregnancy. While it is typically common practice for a woman to be weighed at the start of each prenatal visit, I wouldn’t be too concerned if there is a weight increase higher than expected on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis,” says Cordella. Weight gain recommendations for pregnancy are based on your body mass index and should be discussed with your health care provider. As long as you’re gaining weight within these recommendations, Cordella emphasizes that “weight gain should not be the focus. Overall dietary patterns and nutritional status are much more important factors to focus on and are often not reflected through measuring body weight alone.”  

The best foods to eat and the foods to avoid during pregnancy

Now that we understand a bit more about the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common food groups that people have questions about during pregnancy.

Is it safe to include raw meat in your pregnancy diet?

While it’s safe to eat cooked meat during pregnancy, Cordella advises that you steer clear of raw meat dishes, such as rare steaks and carpaccio, when planning your pregnancy diet. She explains that these could potentially cause food poisoning. “Make sure all meat is cooked well to the minimum acceptable internal temperatures,” she adds. Not sure how hot your meat needs to be? Cordella has the following recommendations: 

  • Poultry: 165 F (74 C)
  • Beef, pork, lamb: 145 F (63 C)
  • Ground meat: 160 F (71 C)

Is it safe to include raw seafood in your pregnancy diet?

Raw seafood is another item to leave off your pregnancy diet plan, as it could contain harmful parasites and bacteria. The good news is that cooked seafood can absolutely stay in the plan because it contains lots of nutrients that are beneficial for both your baby and you (not to mention, of course, that it’s delicious). Just be sure to cook seafood to an internal temperature of 145 F (63 C). 

Fish is also an excellent source of protein, and it’s packed with zinc and iron, which are all great nutrients that can contribute to your baby’s growth and development.  Plus, some seafood, such as salmon, trout, and shrimp, contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can help with your baby’s brain development

However, as with all raw seafood, it’s best to leave raw fish off the menu for your pregnancy diet, as it can lead to parasitic infections. This doesn’t mean sushi has to be off the table completely, though; you can always reach for vegetable rolls or dishes containing cooked fish instead.

It’s also advised that you avoid tilefish, swordfish, shark, marlin, king mackerel, and bigeye tuna in your pregnancy diet, as these have been found to contain more mercury than other types of fish, and too much mercury can cause developmental delays and even brain damage to your baby. 

Is it safe to include raw or undercooked eggs in your pregnancy diet?

Cooked eggs are definitely a recommended food to add to a healthy pregnancy diet, as they are packed full of essential macronutrients that can help with the development of your baby. 

However, when it comes to raw or undercooked eggs, you guessed it: These should be avoided during your pregnancy. They run the risk of being contaminated with harmful bacteria, so it’s best to avoid eating raw and undercooked eggs during pregnancy, including foods that are made from them: eggnog, carbonara, hollandaise sauce, homemade dressing, and raw baking batters

Is it safe to include cheese in your pregnancy diet?

Good news for cheese lovers: You don’t need to strike this food off your pregnancy diet plan completely. “Pregnant women should avoid all unpasteurized dairy products,” says Cordella. This is because they could contain bacteria, which could lead to a potentially harmful infection. However, you can still include hard cheeses, such as parmesan and cheddar, in your pregnancy diet, and Cordella adds that it “is common to find mozzarella, cottage cheese, processed cheeses/spreads, goat cheese, and feta cheese that are made with pasteurized milk, making them safe to eat.” So go forth and make up your cheese board. Cordella just advises that you “always check the label to tell if a soft cheese is pasteurized.” 

Is it safe to include ice cream in your pregnancy diet?

If you’re experiencing some intense pregnancy cravings for ice cream, then don’t worry: There’s no need to put down that spoon. Store-bought ice cream is a safe item to include in your pregnancy diet because it’s made from pasteurized milk and eggs, meaning that the risk of food poisoning is negligible. One thing to note, though: If you’re planning to make ice cream at home or purchasing it from a farm, be sure that all the ingredients are pasteurized.

Is it safe to include citrus fruits in your pregnancy diet?

You can definitely include citrus fruits as part of a healthy pregnancy diet, as they’re full to the brim with folate and vitamin C. “Folate helps promote healthy fetal development, and vitamin C is important for building strong bones,” explains Cordella. There are even a few added benefits, too. “Citrus fruits are hydrating, which can also help women meet the increased fluid needs during pregnancy,” adds Cordella. Plus, “Women report that citrus fruits help ease nausea during pregnancy.” Who knew the humble orange could do so much? However, it’s worth noting that citrus fruits can cause heartburn — which is common during pregnancy — if you eat them in large amounts.

Is it safe to include mushrooms in your pregnancy diet?

Just like citrus fruits, mushrooms are a great addition to a healthy pregnancy diet, with some added bonus benefits. For example, there is some evidence that eating mushrooms can help reduce the risk of hypertension for pregnant women, while also helping to lower your risk of excessive weight gain and gestational diabetes. They’re also a great addition to both a vegetarian and vegan pregnancy diet; just be sure they’re fully cooked before you eat them.

Pregnancy diet food

Is it safe to include garlic in your pregnancy diet?

Absolutely — when consumed in moderate amounts, garlic is a great addition to a healthy pregnancy diet, as it has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Just remember that eating a large amount could lead to heartburn, which is already common in pregnancy.

Is it safe to include ginger in your pregnancy diet?

You’ve probably heard about the power of ginger for helping to alleviate nausea, and a trusty cup of ginger tea might be just what you need to help you through any pregnancy queasiness you experience. However, eating ginger in large amounts could lead to heartburn, so be sure to listen to your body if you consume it.

Is it safe to include sugar substitutes in your pregnancy diet?

You might be wondering whether sugar substitutes are a food to avoid during pregnancy, but common sugar substitutes, including aspartame, sucralose, and stevia, are all deemed safe to consume during pregnancy. This means that diet sodas and sugar-free products can stay in your pregnancy diet plan, but it’s recommended that you consume them in moderation.

Is it safe to include peanuts in your pregnancy diet?

You might think it makes sense for peanuts to be included in a list of foods to avoid during pregnancy, as they’re allergenic, but current research doesn’t support the idea that you should avoid peanuts during pregnancy in order to decrease the risk of your baby having a peanut allergy. So they’re safe to eat during pregnancy (unless you’re allergic to them, of course!).

Is it safe to include raw sprouts in your pregnancy diet?

Unfortunately, experts recommend that you take raw sprouts (including radish, bean, clover, and alfalfa sprouts) off your pregnancy diet menu. This is mostly due to their shape, as it’s almost impossible to remove all the bacteria from sprouts, which could lead to food poisoning or an infection. If you’ve got a strong craving for sprouts, make sure they’re fully cooked before eating.

Is it safe to include hot dogs and cold cuts in your pregnancy diet?

If you’re craving cold cuts or hot dogs, then fear not: There’s no need to strike these items off your pregnancy diet menu, as long as they’re cooked properly. “Cold cuts and hot dogs should only be eaten if reheated until steaming (internal temperature of 165 F) to make sure all the unsafe bacteria is destroyed,” explains Cordella. She adds that this advice counts for all “pre-cooked” food that needs to be reheated before eating, emphasizing that they must be reheated until they’re steaming “to eliminate any risk of the food containing harmful bacteria.”  

What foods should you eat every day while pregnant?

We’ve seen that there is a whole range of foods that are safe to include in a healthy pregnancy diet. There is no specific daily diet recommended during this time, but following the principles of a healthy, balanced diet with sufficient nutrients is best. A diet rich in produce, lean protein (such as poultry and fish), whole grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds has been associated with improved health outcomes for both you and baby.

What fluids can you drink within your pregnancy diet?

You probably already know that you need to avoid alcohol during your pregnancy, but what other drinks need to be moderated? And what fluids can remain in your pregnancy diet plan? From coffee to fruit juice, we’ve got all the information you need about the best drinks for pregnant women and people here.

How can you prepare the food in your pregnancy diet safely?

As we’ve seen, there are a number of foods, like meat, fish, and eggs, that need to be properly cooked to certain temperatures in order to make them safe to include in your pregnancy diet. Equally, fruits and vegetables should always be thoroughly washed before eating.

Healthy pregnancy diet: The takeaway

Phew, there’s a lot of information to take in here. Being pregnant can lead to a lot of big lifestyle changes, and it might be understandably difficult to cut certain foods out of your pregnancy diet, especially if you follow a special diet. However, try to remember that the changes are only temporary and support a healthy pregnancy. And you never know, you might even discover some new foods and meals that you love and want to keep on eating after your pregnancy.

As Cordella has said, the focus when it comes to pregnancy nutrition should be on eating a healthy, balanced diet with the right amount of calories and a tasty mix of protein, fat, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Oh, and don’t forget to keep yourself adequately hydrated, too.

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