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Healthy eating during pregnancy


Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due December 2020

If you’re pregnant, it’s more important than ever to have a healthy diet, both for you and your developing baby. You shouldn’t need to drastically alter what you eat, but there are some important things to think about.

Here we give you the key facts about what you should and shouldn’t eat for a healthy pregnancy.

A woman making a salad

What to eat for a healthy pregnancy

There isn’t a special diet that you need to eat when you’re pregnant. The most important thing is to follow a normal healthy diet that gives you enough energy and nutrients for your baby to grow and develop. The basic principles of a healthy diet are the same for everyone and include the following.

  • Basing all your meals on starchy foods (wholegrain when you can).
  • Including plenty of fruit and veg in your diet.
  • Having some protein such as lean meat, fish, eggs or pulses every day.
  • Making sure you get some dairy products or calcium-enriched alternatives every day.
  • Choosing unsaturated oils and spreads, and eating these in small amounts.
  • Drinking six to eight cups/glasses of fluid a day.
  • Limiting the foods and drinks you have that are high in fat or sugar.

Important nutrients for pregnancy

Certain nutrients, such as iron and calcium, are particularly important for your growing baby. If you’re already eating a healthy diet, you shouldn’t need to make any changes. This is because your body adapts during pregnancy to absorb more of these nutrients from your food. But it’s a good idea to make sure you’re including enough of the right foods in your diet.

  • Foods rich in iron include red meat, pulses, nuts, eggs, dried fruit and green leafy veg, like watercress and spinach. Vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, so include plenty of fruit, vegetables and fruit juices in your diet. On the other hand, tea and coffee can reduce iron absorption, so try not to have these at the same time.
  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are a good source of calcium. Other sources include some green leafy vegetables, such as kale, rocket and watercress and canned fish with soft bones, such as sardines.

Certain food products may also be fortified with calcium or iron. This means it’s added during the manufacturing process. Examples include dairy-free alternative products such as soya milk, and breakfast cereals. It will say on the label if these nutrients have been added in.

Do I need to take supplements during pregnancy?

It’s recommended that you take folic acid and vitamin D supplements when you’re pregnant. You need more of these vitamins during pregnancy, and it’s hard to get enough from other sources. You should be careful not to take any vitamin supplement that contains vitamin A (retinol) while you’re pregnant. This includes multivitamins containing vitamin A. Large amounts of vitamin A can be harmful to your unborn baby.

If you’re pregnant and under the age of 18, or on certain benefits, you could qualify for the government Healthy Start scheme. This entitles you to free vitamin supplements. See the ‘Other useful websites’ section for more information.

Folic acid

It’s recommended you take a folic acid supplement during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of your baby being born with a neural tube defect. This is a serious type of birth defect that can affect your baby’s nervous system. An example is spina bifida.

You should take a 400 microgram (µg) folic acid supplement every day from when you start trying to get pregnant until you’re 12 weeks pregnant. If you weren’t taking folic acid before, start as soon as you find out that you’re pregnant. You might need to take more than this if there’s a high risk of you having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect. This might be if you have a family history of neural tube defects or if you have diabetes. You might also need to take a higher dose of folic acid if you’re taking medicines for epilepsy. Talk to your GP to find out more.

As well as taking folic acid supplements, it can help to eat plenty of foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid). Foods rich in folate include green vegetables, orange juice, and breads and cereals that have been fortified with folic acid (it’s added during manufacturing).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for healthy bones and your baby will need a good supply of it to grow and develop. Your skin produces vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight, but the sun is only strong enough in the summer months in the UK. You can also get some vitamin D from some foods, such as oily fish and eggs, but it’s difficult to get enough from these sources.

If you’re pregnant, you’re at a higher risk of not getting enough vitamin D. It’s recommended that you take a 10 microgram (µg) supplement of vitamin D each day while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, to make sure you get enough.

Iron

Iron is important during pregnancy because your body needs it to ensure your growing baby has a sufficient blood supply. Most women get enough iron from their diet during pregnancy, so won’t need to take iron supplements. It’s thought that during pregnancy, your body becomes better at absorbing more iron from your food.

Some women find that their iron levels do become low during pregnancy. If this is the case, your GP or midwife may recommend you take an iron supplement.

Foods to avoid when you’re pregnant

There are certain foods that aren’t safe to eat when you’re pregnant, and ones which you should limit your intake of. In the table below we list the foods you shouldn’t eat when you’re pregnant – and whether there are any safe alternatives.

Eggs

Raw or undercooked (runny) eggs that don’t bear the British Lion mark, and foods that may contain these eggs (including non-hen eggs and eggs from outside the UK) may be infected with Salmonella. This could cause premature labour or miscarriage.

It's fine to eat undercooked or raw eggs if they bear the British Lion mark. Advice was updated on this in 2017, as the risk of Salmonella is now thought to be very low in eggs produced under this scheme.

If you’re unsure if eggs have the British Lion mark or they’re from outside of the UK, it’s best to cook them thoroughly.

Dairy

Mould-ripened soft cheeses

Mould-ripened soft cheeses, such as Camembert, Brie and soft blue cheeses can contain a harmful bacterium called Listeria. Although rare, Listeria infection can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, or serious illness in your baby.

You can eat other types of cheese including hard cheeses (eg. cheddar and stilton) and processed cheeses (eg. mozzarella, cottage cheese and cream cheese).

Unpasteurised milk and milk products

These can also contain Listeria. Only drink pasteurised or UHT milk or milk products.

Meat

Raw or partially cooked meat

Avoid raw or partially cooked meat, including poultry, sausages and burgers; and cured uncooked meats such as parma ham (proscuitto) and salami. Undercooked meat can be a source of Salmonella and toxoplasmosis, which can have harmful effects on your baby’s development. Ensure all meat is cooked thoroughly, and avoid uncooked meats such as parma ham.

Pâté

Pâté (including the vegetable kind) can also contain Listeria. It’s best not to eat pâté while you’re pregnant.

Liver or liver products

These contain lots of vitamin A, which may be harmful for your baby. Don’t eat liver or foods that contain it at all while you’re pregnant.

Game (shot with lead)

Exposure to lead can harm your developing baby’s brain and nervous system. Eating game that has been shot with lead can expose you to harmful levels. Cut down, or avoid, this type of meat. Large game as sold in supermarkets has generally been farmed, and so will have no or very low levels of lead.

Fish and seafood

Shark, swordfish and marlin

These can contain mercury. High levels of mercury can harm your baby’s nervous system. Eat other types of fish as these are generally good for you and your baby; although see the advice on oily fish below.

Oily fish / non-oily fish

Limit your intake of some oily fish, such as fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines, and certain non-oily fish such as sea bass, bream, halibut and crab. These fish can contain low levels of pollutants, which can be harmful if they build up in your body over time. Don’t eat more than two portions of oily fish a week.

Raw shellfish

These can contain harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella, that can give you food poisoning. Cook shellfish thoroughly. Alternatively, you might want to avoid it altogether to be on the safe side.

Other

Uncooked or undercooked ready meal

If uncooked or undercooked, these can contain Listeria. Make sure you cook ready meals thoroughly.

Foods with soil on them – such as salads, fruit and vegetables

These can be a source of toxoplasmosis. Wash all salad, fruit and veg thoroughly.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can have a range of harmful effects, known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Current advice is not to drink alcohol at all if you’re pregnant. If you drank alcohol before finding out you’re pregnant, the risk your baby will be affected is likely to be low, but avoid further drinking.

Caffeine

Limit your intake of tea, coffee, colas and energy drinks that contain caffeine. High levels of caffeine can cause your baby to have a low birth weight and increase the risk of miscarriage. Have no more than the following amounts each day. Two mugs of instant coffee or tea, or one mug of brewed or filter coffee, or five cans of cola, or two energy drinks. Try decaffeinated teas and coffees or other alternatives.

Do you need to eat more when you’re pregnant?

Although you may feel more hungry than usual when you’re pregnant, there’s no need to ‘eat for two’.

You don’t have any extra energy needs during the first six months of pregnancy. It’s only when you reach the last three months that you may need a little extra energy – around 200 extra calories a day. This is still not much – it’s roughly the same as two slices of bread.

If you put on too much weight, it can increase your risk of developing complications during your pregnancy, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. It can also increase the risk of health problems for your baby.

There are no guidelines in the UK for how much weight you should put on when you’re pregnant – it varies a lot between women. But most women tend to put on between around 10 and 12.5kg (1 and a half to 2 stones). Most of this weight is due to your growing baby, not weight you put on through eating.

If you’re overweight, don’t try to lose weight when you’re pregnant – this could be dangerous for you and your baby. Instead it’s recommended that you try to get down to a healthy weight either before trying for a baby, or after you’ve had your baby.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

Being vegetarian or vegan shouldn’t pose a problem when you’re pregnant – as long as you eat a healthy balanced diet.

Meat, fish and dairy are a good source of certain nutrients. If you’re excluding these foods, you just need to make sure you get these nutrients elsewhere. For example, you can get any protein you’re missing in meat from eggs, soya, beans, nuts and pulses. Tofu and Quorn are also good sources of protein. As you won’t be getting iron from meat, eat lots of green leafy vegetables like watercress, and pulses such as peas and lentils. Nuts and seeds are another good source of iron.

If you’re vegan and don’t eat any food from animal sources, you need to make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin B12. Bread, cereals and dairy-free alternatives are often fortified with these nutrients, so check food labels before you buy.

If you’re vegan, your GP or midwife may suggest you see a dietitian to assess your diet. This is to check whether you need to take any extra supplements.

Dietary problems in pregnancy

There are several common problems in pregnancy that that can affect your normal diet. Here are three of the most common, and our tips for dealing with them.

  • Morning sickness. If you’re suffering from nausea and vomiting try eating little and often, and avoid large meals. You may find plain, starchy foods such as toast, dry biscuits or crackers easier to tolerate. Make sure you keep drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Heartburn. This is more common later in pregnancy. Again, eating little and often is better than big meals. Sit up straight when you eat, and eat slowly. Foods that may trigger heartburn include spicy foods, fatty foods, caffeine, fruit juices and fizzy drinks. Avoid these if they affect you.
  • Constipation. If you become constipated, it will help to increase your fibre intake. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread and cereals, and beans and pulses. You should also make sure you’re getting enough fluids.

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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Pregnancy food fact sheet. BDA – The Association of UK Dietitians. www.bda.uk.com, published May 2016
    • Maternal and child health. National Institute for health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2008. www.nice.org.uk
    • Nutrition and supplements during pregnancy. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed June 2015
    • Diet before and during pregnancy. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, updated December 2015
    • The Eatwell Guide. Public Health England, July 2016. www.gov.uk
    • Vitamin D: supplement use in specific population groups. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 26 November 2014. www.nice.org.uk
    • Healthy Start. www.healthystart.nhs.uk, accessed 9 November 2017
    • New advice on eating runny eggs. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, 11 October 2017
    • What not to eat when pregnant. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, revised January 2016
    • Advice to frequent eaters of game shot with lead. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated October 2015
    • UK Chief Medical Officers’ alcohol guidelines review. Department of Health, January 2016. www.gov.uk
    • Healthy weight in pregnancy. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed June 2015
    • Vegetarian and vegan mums to be. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed April 2015
    • Common problems. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed June 2015
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, December 2017
    Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due December 2020



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