Beginning at conception, a child’s brain and body rapidly develop. A well-balanced diet that contains a variety of foods is the first step to ensure healthy growth of your baby. A nutritious diet during pregnancy can have lifelong benefits for your child.
You’ll likely need to increase certain nutrients throughout your pregnancy that support your baby’s growth and take care of your needs too. Here are some that deserve special attention and the foods that contain them.
Eating for two means eating twice as well, not twice as much.
When you’re pregnant, your caloric needs change to support the healthy growth and development of your baby and the needs of your body. But a healthy pregnancy diet doesn’t mean “eating for two.” If you’re already eating a well-balanced diet, you don’t need as many extra calories as you may think.
- First trimester: During the first 1 to 3 months of pregnancy, you don’t need to eat more calories each day.
- Second trimester: During the second trimester, months 4 to 6, you need about 340 more calories each day.
- Third trimester: During the last few months of pregnancy, you need about 450 more calories each day.
Think about “eating twice as well” by consuming calories from a wide variety of nutritious foods. Your healthcare professional can talk with you about healthy weight gain for your pregnancy.
Foods that contain important nutrients for your developing baby
Following the basic principles of healthy eating during pregnancy is important. But you may need more of certain nutrients. Fill up on foods that contain these important nutrients.
Calcium builds strong bones and teeth for your baby and keeps yours healthy as well. Growing fetal bones requires about 30 grams of calcium across the pregnancy, much of it during the last trimester.
If you don’t have enough calcium in your diet, the calcium your baby needs is taken from your body’s storage. During pregnancy, you need 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. Pregnant teenagers need 1,300 mg a day.
Good food sources of calcium include:
- Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt. Dairy foods provide the best absorbed source of calcium for the body.
- Broccoli, kale and other dark green leafy vegetables.
- Almonds and sesame seeds.
- Fortified fruit juices and breakfast cereals.
- Sardines or anchovies with bones.
Vitamin D is especially important because it helps your body absorb calcium. Vitamin D works with calcium to help build your baby’s bones and teeth. It also helps your baby develop healthy eyesight and skin. You need 600 international units (IU) or 15 mcg of vitamin D a day during pregnancy.
Good food sources of vitamin D include:
- Fortified milk and dairy foods
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, trout and sardines.
- Fortified orange juice.
- Egg yolks.
- Fortified breakfast cereal.
Folate and folic acid
Folate is a B vitamin that’s especially important if you’re pregnant or may become pregnant. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate.
Folic acid is created in a lab where it is made into a vitamin, added to other supplements or added to food, called fortified foods. Taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy help prevent serious problems with the brain and spinal cord during fetal development, known as neural tube defects. Folic acid also supports the healthy development of a baby and the placenta.
You need 400 to 800 micrograms (mcg) a day of folic acid in the months before you become pregnant. Then during pregnancy, you need 600 mcg of folic acid each day.
Folate is naturally present in:
- Beef liver
- Vegetables (particularly asparagus, brussels sprouts, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and mustard greens)
- Fruits and fruit juices (especially oranges and orange juice)
- Nuts, beans and peas (such as peanuts, black-eyed peas and kidney beans)
Folic acid is added to the following foods:
- Enriched bread, flour, cornmeal, pasta and rice
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified corn masa flour
Protein is crucial for your baby’s growth throughout pregnancy. This is especially true during the second and third trimesters when your baby is growing the most. You need about 71 grams of protein a day during the last two trimesters of pregnancy. That’s about 10% to 35% of your daily diet.
Good food sources of protein include:
- Lean meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.
- Dairy foods, such as milk, cottage cheese and yogurt.
- Beans, peas, nuts and seeds.
- Soy products.
Iron is used to make hemoglobin in the body. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that supplies oxygen to you and your baby.
Your body adds around 8 pounds of extra blood and body fluids when pregnant. You have about 50% more blood plasma and 25% more red blood cells than when you’re not pregnant. To meet this demand, your body needs 50% more iron during pregnancy.
If you don’t have enough iron stores or get enough iron during pregnancy, you could develop iron deficiency anemia. You might have low energy or feel dizzy or weak. Severe iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy also increases the risk of premature birth, having a baby with a low birth weight and experiencing postpartum depression.
You need 27 mg of iron a day during pregnancy.
Good food sources of iron include:
- Lean red meat, poultry and fish, which contain heme iron that is more easily absorbed by the body.
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads.
- Whole and enriched grains.
- Beans, peas and lentils.
- Dark green leafy vegetables.
Eating foods rich in vitamin C — oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, broccoli and peppers — along with iron-rich foods can help your body absorb iron.
Prenatal vitamins typically contain iron. In some cases, your healthcare professional may recommend a separate iron supplement.
During pregnancy, iodine is essential for your baby’s healthy brain development. Iodine can also prevent low thyroid hormone levels in both you and your baby.
During pregnancy, you need 220 mcg of iodine a day.
Good food sources of iodine include:
- Iodized table salt.
- Seafood and meat.
- Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt.
- Some fortified breads.
If you use salt, choose one that contains iodine. Keep in mind that natural sea salt has only a small amount of iodine.
Vitamin A helps create healthy skin and eyes for both you and your baby. Vitamin A is also important for cell division, organ development, building a healthy immune system and bone growth for your baby. If you have low levels of vitamin A during pregnancy, you may have problems seeing at night or in poor light.
You need 770 mcg of vitamin A during pregnancy. Pregnant teens need 750 mcg.
Good food sources of vitamin A include:
- Green leafy vegetables.
- Carrots, sweet potatoes and squash.
Supplements with too much vitamin A can be dangerous for your baby. Talk to your healthcare professional before you take extra vitamin A supplements.
Choline is an important nutrient for your baby’s brain, nerve and spinal cord development. During pregnancy, you need 450 mg of choline a day.
Food sources of choline include:
- Lean meats and seafood, such as sardines.
- Dairy milk.
- Kidney beans and lentils.
- Soy beans.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are found mainly in seafood. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in plant oils.
Omega-3s are important for healthy fetal brain and eye development during pregnancy. DHA, in particular, may improve your baby’s ability to think and learn. Omega-3s might improve infant health outcomes and lessen the likelihood of preterm birth.
During pregnancy, it’s recommended to aim for 200 to 300 mg of DHA a day.
Good food sources of omega-3s are:
- Fatty fish and other types of seafood. (DHA and EPA)
- Flaxseed oil, flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil and walnuts. (ALA)
- Omega-3 fortified foods, such as certain brands of milk, eggs, yogurt and cereal.
Avoid seafood with a higher mercury content (like king mackerel, shark and swordfish) as well as raw or undercooked seafood. Your healthcare professional may recommend omega-3 supplements.
B vitamins support a baby’s nerve function, growth and cell division. B vitamins give you energy during pregnancy, promote good vision for your baby and help keep the placenta healthy. Some important B vitamins are B-6 and B-12.
Vitamin B-6 helps make red blood cells. It also helps the body use protein, fat and carbohydrates for healthy growth. Vitamin B-6 may improve nausea during pregnancy. While pregnant, you need 1.9 mg of vitamin B-6 a day. The recommended upper limit for vitamin B-6 is 100 mg a day.
Good food sources of vitamin B-6 include:
- Meat and poultry.
- Fortified whole-grain cereal.
Vitamin B-12 helps keep your baby’s nervous system healthy. It also helps make red blood cells. During pregnancy, you need 2.6 mcg of vitamin B-12 a day.
Good food sources of vitamin B-12 include:
- Meat and fish.
- Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt.
Vitamin C helps your baby’s bones, teeth and gums develop. This vitamin also helps build a healthy immune system for your baby. Additionally, vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron.
You need 85 mg of vitamin C a day during pregnancy. Pregnant teens need 80 mg.
Good food sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits, melons and berries.
- Tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli.
Even if you eat a healthy diet, you can miss out on key nutrients. Taking a daily prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement can help fill any gaps. Check with your healthcare professional about vitamin or mineral supplements you need during your pregnancy. Taking too much of some supplements can be harmful to you and your baby.
Eating well is one of the best things you can do for your baby during pregnancy. Ideally, eating healthy starts before pregnancy and continues through breastfeeding. If you’re trying to become pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your healthcare professional about the best way to ensure you and your baby get the right amounts of important nutrients.