Congratulations! You are going through the most incredible process of growing a new life inside you, but while pregnancy is wonderful, it is also hard work, tiring and a big responsibility. One of the best ways to help yourself through these nine months, and keep yourself and your unborn baby on top form, is to eat well. Did you know that before he/she is born, your baby can taste the food you are eating (through the amniotic fluid)[i]? Studies have actually been done which show babies enjoy foods more if they were exposed to them through their mother’s diet in pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding[ii]! So, enjoy a healthy diet now, and you really are giving your little one a great start.
How to eat when pregnant
Essentially a “pregnancy diet” is just a normal healthy diet! It doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult. It is however, especially important that you eat a well-rounded diet to ensure sufficient intake of essential vitamins and minerals, as a deficiency is not only bad for the mother’s health, but can also cause damage to the unborn baby[iii]. For this reason, it is often recommended that a pregnancy specific multivitamin is taken. Talk to your doctor or midwife if you need advice, but generally pregnancy specific multivitamins contain higher levels of folic acid (which is extremely important in the early days for the baby’s development), and no supplemental vitamin A, as too much can cause issues (more on this below).
There are also certain foods you should avoid entirely, or in large quantities, either because there is a risk they could make you ill, or they contain substances which are potentially damaging to your unborn baby.
- Foods which may carry harmful bacteria (for example listeria or salmonella), including:
- mould ripened (those with a white rind) and blue veined cheeses (unless cooked to piping hot), and any other unpasteurised soft cheese, milk or yogurt
- raw or undercooked hens’ eggs which don’t have the British Red Lion stamp (those that do, are considered at extremely low risk of salmonella so safe to eat however you wish)
- raw and undercooked meats and pâtés (including vegetarian ones). Note that many cured meats (e.g. salami) have not been thoroughly cooked, so these should also be avoided
- raw fish unless it has been frozen first (which kills any parasitic worms the fish may contain)
- Foods with toxic heavy metal contaminants
- Many fish, especially large fish such as swordfish, marlin and tuna, may contain significant levels of mercury which can damage the baby’s nervous system[iv]. Consumption should therefore be limited.
- Game that has been shot with lead pellets should also be avoided
- Alcohol. Research has shown clear links between high alcohol intake and impacts on foetal development, but the impact of much smaller amounts is still unclear so the current NHS advice is to avoid it altogether[v].
- High levels of caffeine have been linked to low birth weight[vi] so it is advised to limit consumption. Remember also, that caffeine is a diuretic (it makes you need the loo), not ideal when you already need to go constantly!
- Foods high in vitamin A such as liver[vii]. Vitamin A is actually extremely important in pregnancy for the baby’s development, but too much can cause neural defects[viii]. Hence the NHS advice is to avoid foods high in vitamin A such as liver. It is also found in yellow and orange fruit and vegetables (in a form called beta carotene), which is in a very safe form so is a great way to get a healthy intake of the vitamin.
For the most up to date advice in the UK, see www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/foods-to-avoid-pregnant/
A few more general pieces of advice for eating in pregnancy:
- Eating for two does not mean eating double! Unless your doctor tells you to (perhaps if you are a bit underweight or are carrying multiples), you really don’t need to consume any more than normal until the third trimester, and even then you only need about 200 calories more a day[ix] – that’s not much; a banana and a handful of nuts for example.
- Eat lots of small meals rather than fewer large ones. This might seem like a pain, but it will help regulate blood sugar and energy levels, and as your baby gets bigger, and your digestive system gets more and more squashed, you will find it far more comfortable. It may also help reduce heartburn, nausea and constipation.
- Avoid fatty foods. As with larger meals, fatty food sits heavily on your system and is more difficult to digest so is more likely to give you digestive issues. Of course, these foods are also calorie laden which isn’t great if you are trying to limit excess additional weight.
- Eat plenty of fibre and keep well hydrated to limit the risk of constipation[x]. Most fruit and vegetables will help but prunes have been found to be particularly effective[xi].
Some useful resources online:
The NHS has plenty of no nonsense advice
Meal planners by trimester from Babycentre
Part of the “What to Expect” series, this website has lots of straightforward information
Good article and recipe links from the BBC
Some great tips on generally staying healthy in pregnancy https://momlovesbest.com/healthy-pregnancy
[i] Venture, A. and Worobey, J. (2013) “Early influences on the development of food preferences” in Current Biology 6;23(9) Available at www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00208-X
[iii] Hovdenak, N. and Haram, K. (2012) “Influence of mineral and vitamin supplements on pregnancy outcome” in European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology 164(2):127-32 Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22771225
[iv] Solan, T. and Lindow, S. (2014) “Mercury exposure in pregnancy: a review” in Journal of Perinatal Medicine 42(6):725-9 Available at www.degruyter.com/view/j/jpme.2014.42.issue-6/jpm-2013-0349/jpm-2013-0349.xml
[v]RCOG (2018) Patient Information Leaflet: Pregnancy and Alcohol. Available at www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/patient-information-leaflets/pregnancy/pi-alcohol-and-pregnancy.pdf
[vi] Chen, L. et al (2014) “Maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy is associated with risk of low birth weight: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis” in BMC Medicine 12:174 Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4198801/
[vii] Parkinson, C. et al (1982) “Vitamin A concentration in amniotic fluid and maternal serum related to neural-tube defects” in British Journal of Obstetrics ad Gynaecology 89(11) Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6184067
[viii] Elmadfa, I. and Meyer, A. (2012) “Vitamins for the first 1000 days: preparing for life” in International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 82(5):342-7 Available at https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/pdf/10.1024/0300-9831/a000129
[ix]NICE Guidelines (2010) Weight Management Before, During and After Pregnancy Available at www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph27/chapter/1-Recommendations#recommendation-2-pregnant-women
[x]NHS (2018) Constipation (online guide) Available at www.nhs.uk/conditions/constipation/
[xi]Lever, E. et al (2014) “Systematic review: the effect of prunes on gastrointestinal function” in Alimentary pharmacology and therapeutics 40(7):750-8 Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25109788
Disclaimer: I am not a qualified doctor, nutritionist or dietician. This article is based on my own experience, I do not claim to have professional medical or nutritional knowledge and this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Please seek the advice of a healthcare professional if you have specific health concerns and always follow the advice of your doctor, midwife and other healthcare providers.