Diet & Vitamins
During pregnancy you need to make sure that your diet is providing you with enough energy and nutrients for the baby to grow and develop, and for your body to deal with the changes taking place.
What to eat
It’s important to try to eat a variety of foods including:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables (fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or a glass of juice). Aim for at least five portions of a variety each day
- plenty of starchy foods such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes – try to choose wholegrain options
- foods rich in protein such as lean meat and chicken, fish (aim for at least two servings of fish a week, including one of oily fish), eggs and pulses (such as beans and lentils).These foods are also good sources of iron (see ‘Do I need extra iron?’ below)
- plenty of fibre. This helps prevent constipation and is found in wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, pulses and fruit and vegetables
- dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, which contain calcium.
It’s also a good idea to cut down on foods such as cakes and biscuits, because these are high in fat and sugar. This can also help you to avoid putting on too much weight during pregnancy. Healthy snacks to have instead include, malt loaf; currant buns without icing; sandwiches or pitta bread filled with cottage cheese, chicken or lean ham; low-fat yoghurts; vegetable and bean soups; and fruit including fresh, tinned in juice or dried fruit such as raisins or apricots.
Vitamins and minerals
You should take a daily 400 microgram (mcg) folic acid supplement from the time you stop using contraception until the 12th week of pregnancy.You should also eat foods containing folate – the natural form of folic acid – such as green vegetables and brown rice, fortified bread and breakfast cereals.Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. If you would like to take your folic acid in a supplement that contains other vitamins, make sure it contains 400mcg folic acid and doesn’t contain vitamin A. (See ‘What to avoid’.)If you have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect or have diabetes you should take a higher dose of folic acid – 5 milligrams (mg) a day – for the same period of time, and ask your Midwife or GP for further advice.IronPregnant women can become deficient in iron, so make sure you have plenty of iron-rich foods.
Try to have some food or drink containing vitamin C, such as fruit or vegetables or a glass of fruit juice, with any iron-rich meals because this might help your body absorb iron.Tea and coffee can make it harder for our bodies to absorb iron, so cutting down on these drinks at meal times could help to improve iron levels in the body.If the iron level in your blood becomes low, your midwife or GP will advise you to take iron supplements.
Good sources of iron include:
- red meat
- green vegetables
- fortified breakfast cereals
Although liver contains a lot of iron, you should avoid eating it while you’re pregnant (see ‘What to avoid’).
You should take supplements containing 10mcg of vitamin D each day.
Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods but we get most of our vitamin D from summer sunlight – if you’re out in the sun, remember to take care not to burn!
If you have dark skin, if you always cover up all your skin when you’re outside, or if you rarely get outdoors, you may be particularly short of vitamin D. Ask your Midwife or GP for more information.
You may be entitled to free vitamin supplements including Folic Acid and Vitamin D through the Healthy Start scheme. For more information ask your Midwife or visit Healthy Start.
You can eat most types of fish when you’re pregnant. Eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby. You just need to avoid some types of fish and limit the amount you eat of some others.
Avoid eating any of these fish when you’re pregnant:
- shark, swordfish, marlin
Limit the amount of tuna you eat to:
- no more than two tuna steaks a week (weighing about 140g cooked or 170g raw)
- OR no more than four medium-size cans of tuna a week (with a drained weight of about 140g per can)
This is because shark, swordfish, marlin and tuna could contain high levels of mercury. If you take in high levels of mercury when you’re pregnant, this could affect your baby’s developing nervous system.
Have no more than two portions a week of any of these fish:
- oily fish, including mackerel, sardines, salmon, trout and fresh tuna
- sea bream, sea bass, turbot, halibut, rock salmon (also known as dogfish, flake, huss, rigg or rock eel)
- brown crabmeat
This is because these types of fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body over time, including dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
Canned tuna doesn’t count as oily fish, so you can eat this as well as your maximum two portions of oily fish – but don’t eat more than the recommended amount of tuna. And remember that if you’re eating fresh tuna this will count towards your two portions of oily fish (as well as your portions of tuna).
Don’t forget that eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby, so you should still aim to eat at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish.
What to avoid
There are certain foods that you should avoid when you’re pregnant, because they might make you ill or harm your baby:
Some types of cheese
Avoid cheeses such as Camembert, Brie or chevre (a type of goats’ cheese), or others that have a similar rind. You should also avoid soft blue cheeses.
These cheeses are made with mould and they can contain listeria, a type of bacteria that could harm your unborn baby.
Find out more about listeria
Avoid all types of pâté, including vegetable. This is because pate can contain listeria.
Raw or partially cooked eggs
Avoid eating raw eggs and food containing raw or partially-cooked eggs. Only eat eggs cooked enough for both the white and yolk to be solid. This is to avoid the risk of salmonella, which causes a type of food poisoning.
Raw or undercooked meat
Make sure you only eat meat that has been well cooked. This is especially important with poultry and products made from minced meat, such as sausages and burgers. Make sure these are cooked until they are steaming hot all the way through and no pink meat is left. Always wash your hands after handling raw meat, and keep it separate from foods that are ready to eat. This is because raw meat contains bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Liver products and supplements containing vitamin A. Make sure you don’t have too much vitamin A. This means you should avoid eating liver and liver products such as pâté and avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A or fish liver oils (which contain high levels of vitamin A). You need some vitamin A, but having too much means that levels could build up and may harm your unborn baby. Ask your Midwife or GP if you want more information.
Undercooked ready meals
Avoid eating ready meals that are undercooked. Make sure you heat them until they are steaming hot all the way through.
Avoid raw shellfish when you’re pregnant. This is because raw shellfish can sometimes contain harmful bacteria and viruses that could cause food poisoning. And food poisoning can be particularly unpleasant when you’re pregnant.
Should I avoid peanuts?
If you would like to eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) during pregnancy, you can choose to do so as part of a healthy balanced diet, unless you yourself are allergic to them or unless your health professional advises you not to.
You may have heard that some women, in the past, have chosen not to eat peanuts when they are pregnant. This is because the Government previously advised women that they may wish to avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy if there was a history of allergy in their child’s immediate family (such as asthma, eczema, hayfever, food allergy or other types of allergy). But this advice has now been changed because the latest research has shown that there is no clear evidence to say that eating or not eating peanuts during pregnancy affects the chances of your baby developing a peanut allergy.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should discuss these with your GP, Midwife, Health Visitor or other health professional.
If you choose to avoid eating peanuts or foods containing peanuts during pregnancy, you can do so by reading the ingredients list on food labels, where peanut must be declared by law if it is an ingredient.
Foods you don’t need to avoid
It can be confusing trying to work out which foods you can eat and which foods you should avoid when you’re pregnant. You might find it helpful to look at this list of some of the foods you don’t need to avoid:
Shellfish, including prawns – as long as they are part of a hot meal and have been properly cooked
Live or bio yoghurt
Mayonnaise, ice-cream, salad dressing – as long as they haven’t been made using raw egg. Generally, mayonnaise, ice-cream and salad dressing you buy in shops will have been made with pasteurised egg, which means it’s safe to eat. But it’s better to avoid home-made versions if they contain raw egg. If you’re not sure about any of these foods when you’re eating out, ask staff for more information
Honey – it’s fine for pregnant women but honey isn’t suitable for babies under a year old
Many types of cheese including:
Hard cheese, such as Cheddar and Parmesan
Processed cheese, such as cheese spreads
Weight gain in pregnancy varies and depends on what you weighed before you became pregnant. The more weight a woman gains during pregnancy, the more likely she is to retain the weight after childbirth. Most women put on 10–12.5kg (22–28lb) over the whole of their pregnancy. If you gain too much weight, this can affect your health and increase your blood pressure. But equally, it’s important that you don’t try to diet. If you’re concerned about your weight, talk to your Midwife or GP.
You might find it useful to read The Pregnancy Book (click here), which is published by health departments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is available free to first-time parents. The Health Education Board for Scotland produces a book called Ready steady baby!, which is free to first-time parents in Scotland.
If you haven’t already got a copy of one of these, speak to your GP, Midwife or Health Visitor, or contact your local health promotion unit.
Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence.