Healthy Diet during Pregnancy

Women who follow a healthy diet before pregnancy may only need to make some basic changes to ensure that she and the developing baby get the proper nutrition. During pregnancy, increase the daily intake of calories through healthy food choices, eat more protein, and take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid (as directed by a qualified health care provider). Women who generally do not follow a healthy diet should start making healthy changes before becoming pregnant.

To give birth to a healthy, thriving baby, the nutritional value of a woman's diet is just as important as the total caloric intake. Sometimes this may require vitamin or mineral supplements, especially iron, calcium, folate and, for some women, vitamin D. Generally, sodium should be restricted to avoid developing high blood pressure (hypertension).

Iron & Pregnancy

There are more than 200 million molecules of hemoglobin in a single red blood cell. Iron is the main component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the body. During pregnancy, a woman's blood supply increases to supply nutrition to the growing fetus. Iron deficiency may cause iron-deficiency anemia.

Pregnant women should eat iron-rich foods to prevent iron deficiency. Iron-rich foods include leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli, strawberries, meats, whole grains, prune juice, dried fruit, legumes, and blackstrap molasses.

Routine prenatal care is a good way to determine if a woman should take an iron supplement during pregnancy. Some women require a 30 mg supplement per day or, if diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, as much as 60 to 120 mg of iron per day.

Calcium & Pregnancy

Calcium is essential for maintaining the bone integrity of a pregnant woman and providing the skeletal development of the fetus. The U.S. RDA (recommended daily allowance) for pregnant women is 1200 mg, which is sufficient to meet both the maternal and fetal needs. Women should increase their intake of calcium-rich foods, such as milk products. Women who do not consume dairy products should take a calcium supplement of 600 mg per day.

Folate & Pregnancy

Folate is essential for protein synthesis, the formation of new cells, and the production of new blood. It is required for a pregnant woman's increasing blood supply and the growth of both maternal and fetal tissues. Sufficient folate also decreases the risk of neural tube defects.

The recommended intake for folate increases during pregnancy from 200 mcg (micrograms) to 400 mcg per day. It is possible to meet this requirement through a well-selected diet: folate-rich foods include eggs, leafy vegetables, oranges, legumes, and wheat germ. Some women may require 300 mcg of folate supplement daily.

For women who have previously delivered infants with neural tube defects, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 400 mcg supplements daily, starting at least 4 weeks before conception and for the first 3 months of pregnancy.

Multivitamins containing folate should not be used to achieve the desired level of supplementation, as potentially harmful quantities of other nutrients (such as vitamin A) could be ingested.

Vitamin D & Pregnancy

Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium and is important for normal bone growth. Women with a low intake of vitamin D-fortified milk and minimal exposure to sunlight should take a daily supplement (10 mcg).

Protein & Pregnancy

The estimated requirement for protein during pregnancy is 60 gm, which is about 15 gm more than normal. Protein-containing foods can be excellent sources of vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin B6, and zinc. In the United States, protein deficiency is uncommon because most people consume and adequate amount of protein-rich foods.

Getting enough protein is important to help the woman maintain, and the baby build, muscle and other tissues, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, and low- or non-fat dairy products.

A 3-ounce serving of lean beef, fish, or poultry provides 20–25 grams of protein. There are 6–8 grams of protein in the following:

  • 1/2 cup of beans
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup of nuts
  • 1 cup of low- or non-fat milk or yogurt
  • 1 ounce of cheese
  • 1 egg

Sodium & Pregnancy

Although sodium need not be restricted during pregnancy, excessive use is not recommended. A diet of primarily natural foods can be safely salted "to taste." Pregnant women should avoid processed or "junk" foods that are high in sodium. Excessive intake of salt can cause high blood pressure (hypertension) and may lead to excessive weight gain.

General Nutrition Guidelines

General guidelines to help ensure a healthy pregnancy and birth include the following:

  • Pregnant women should eat a variety of foods (e.g., vegetables, fruits, grains) to ensure a sufficient supply of basic nutrients.
  • The diet should include low-fat dairy products and lean meat.
  • If a woman experiences nausea or morning sickness, or if she feels too full too soon in the later stages of pregnancy, it may be helpful to eat several small meals rather than a few large meals.
  • Pregnant women should limit their consumption of caffeine and excess salt and should avoid alcohol.
  • Pregnant women are encouraged to engage in moderate exercise after consulting with their physician or midwife. Exercise should be geared to increasing the woman's sense of well-being and maintaining her general overall health. Pregnant women who exercise regularly tend to enjoy their pregnancy more. Exercise may also reduce the stress of the delivery for both the mother and baby.
  • Pregnant women should limit fish consumption to 2 servings per week and limit the intake of white or albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish due to potentially high levels of mercury.
  • The U.S. National Academy of Science recommends a vitamin and mineral supplement that contains the following:
    • 30 mg iron
    • 15 mg zinc
    • 2 mg copper
    • 250 mg calcium (600 mg for women younger than age 25 and for those whose daily intake of calcium is less than 600 mg)
    • 2 mg vitamin B6
    • 3 mg folate
    • 5 micrograms vitamin D (10 micrograms for women who do not drink vitamin D-fortified milk, have minimal exposure to sunlight, or are vegan)
    • 2 micrograms of vitamin B12 for women who are vegan

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 31 Oct 2000

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015