When you’re pregnant, you are technically “eating for two.” But, that doesn’t mean you should double up on your calories! What it does mean is that what you eat and drink affects both you and your baby. While there isn’t a magical “pregnancy diet,” there are foods you should avoid and foods you should eat more of while you’re pregnant. That’s because the healthier you are, the healthier of a start you can provide for your baby.
As an added bonus, research suggests your food choices could even help your child not to be a picky eater. Prenatal and postnatal exposures to flavors through amniotic fluid and breast milk could have a possible influence on food acceptance.
When it comes to food during pregnancy, many women have questions about what to eat and what to avoid. And many experience cravings or aversions while pregnant.
The food guidelines below are general recommendations from a doctor and OBGYN, but some women will need to further modify their diets if they are at risk of developing gestational diabetes or if they become anemic during pregnancy.
The Best Pregnancy Diet is a Balanced Diet
There isn’t truly a one-size-fits-all “best pregnancy diet.” Instead, we recommend that our patients follow a balanced diet of protein, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. An easy balanced diet to follow is the Mediterranean Diet. It includes many colorful vegetables and nutrient-dense grains, focuses on lean meats, and avoids processed foods and refined sugars.
The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to support healthy weight gain during pregnancy while helping ensure women get the necessary vitamins and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) they need to support their pregnancy.
Does that mean you don’t get to enjoy ice cream, chips, or cookies while you’re expecting? Not at all! Just limit the amount of sugary, processed foods you’re eating. Fill up on the good, healthy stuff first.
The Best Foods to Eat While Pregnant
Just like there isn’t a “best pregnancy diet,” there isn’t a list of the “best foods to eat while you’re pregnant.” The same colorful, nutritious foods you would eat before you become pregnant are the same kinds of foods you should eat when you are expecting.
- Vegetables: carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, greens, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, squash
- Fruits: melon, mangoes, plums, bananas, apricots, oranges, grapefruit, berries, nectarines, peaches, grapes
- Dairy: yogurt, pasteurized milk, pasteurized cheese
- Grains: cereal, bread, oatmeal, brown rice, pasta, quinoa
- Proteins: beans and peas, nuts and seeds, lean meats, most cooked seafood/fish
- Healthy fats: Avocado, olive oil, nuts
This is not a complete list of all the healthy foods you can eat — but these ones are pretty easy to find in any grocery store. As much as possible, choose fresh or frozen produce instead of canned.
In addition, every woman should also take a daily prenatal vitamin containing folic acid.
How to Manage Food Aversions and Cravings
During the first trimester is when women typically develop a food aversion. Their heightened sense of smell or taste and increased nausea could make certain foods, spices, soaps and perfumes off-putting and overpowering. Do the best you can with your nutrition during this time while eating foods that are tolerable to you. Your baby will get what he or she needs from your body, even if you aren’t keeping all your food down.
Once your first trimester nausea has passed, your food aversions tend to go away and can be replaced by food cravings. Typically, women crave something sweet or salty. Try to satisfy your craving with a healthy option, like actual fruit instead of a handful of Skittles. But if you need that occasional scoop of cookie dough ice cream or pickles with potato chips — go for it once in a while! (Just make sure that cookie dough is pasteurized!)
The cravings my patients most commonly report to me are sweets, pizza, carbohydrates, pickles, tacos, cereal, and mac and cheese. In other words, comfort foods!
It isn’t uncommon for people to offer anecdotes about what your food cravings or aversions might mean for your child or your child’s sex. But what you crave and what makes you sick to even think about during your first trimester is unique to you! There are no studies that prove that food cravings or aversions play a role in what your baby’s personality might be like or what sex your baby will be.
Is Spicy Food OK During Pregnancy?
You determine your level of spice during pregnancy. If you like spicy food, go for it! Pay attention to how you feel afterward, though. Sometimes, spicy foods can make pregnancy heartburn worse.
Foods and Drinks to Avoid During Pregnancy
We like to focus on the positive — what you can have rather than what you can’t. And there are so many wonderful foods you can eat! However, there are some foods that need to be avoided during pregnancy because they could put your baby at risk.
The foods you should avoid while you’re pregnant are those that could contain harmful bacteria, such as listeria, E. coli, salmonella, and toxoplasma, or parasites. Listeria could lead to a serious infection (listeriosis) which could result in the loss of your baby. This is why we urge you to avoid unpasteurized foods, milks and juices, and raw or undercooked fish, eggs, and meat.
Reduce your risk of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli poisoning by avoiding these foods:
- Unpasteurized milk and foods made with unpasteurized milk. For example, avoid soft cheeses, including feta, queso blanco and fresco, Camembert, brie or blue-veined cheeses unless they’re labeled “made with pasteurized milk.”
- Fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized juice from restaurants and farm stands. If juices haven’t been pasteurized, they aren’t protected against e coli or salmonella, which could grow in the beverages as they sit out.
- Hot dogs and lunch meats/cold cuts. Even though these meats have been cooked and are kept refrigerated, it’s possible that they could harbor listeria, which is capable of growing at temperatures in your fridge. Heat these until they’re steaming hot before serving, or order the toasted version of your favorite sandwich at the deli.
- Raw eggs. Cookie dough, some made-from-scratch salad dressings and mayonnaise, homemade desserts like mousse, meringue, and egg nog all use raw eggs. Choose pasteurized versions of these treats instead. Skip poached and soft-boiled eggs during pregnancy as well.
- Raw and undercooked seafood. Do not eat sushi made with raw fish. Cooked sushi is fine.
- Raw and undercooked meat. Cut down on your chances of ingesting harmful bacteria and parasites by ordering your burgers with “no pink” and your steaks medium-well done.
Food poisoning is never fun. But when you’re pregnant, it can be especially dangerous because the harmful bacteria can be passed to your baby. You can prevent food poisoning by following food safety guidelines when you’re handling and cooking food:
Rinse all raw produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating, cutting or cooking.
Wash your hands, knives, countertops and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
Cook beef, pork or poultry to a safe internal temperature verified by a food thermometer.
Promptly refrigerate all perishable food.
Food Poisoning vs Pregnancy Nausea
If you think you have food poisoning, you should contact your doctor right away.
Food poisoning feels like sharp, sudden abdominal pain. You’ll likely suffer from diarrhea and a sudden onset of significant vomiting. You’ll also develop fevers and chills.
Pregnancy nausea is different than food poisoning. You may feel sick several times a day. The feeling lingers and is more nausea, less vomiting. Typically, the feeling gets better if you eat a little bit, like a simple cracker or bread.
It’s important to call your doctor with any concerns, especially if you’ve been having a hard time keeping any foods down.
Avoid drinking alcohol during pregnancy
Because there is no known amount of alcohol that is proven to be safe during pregnancy, it is best to avoid alcohol entirely. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can interfere with the healthy development of your baby. Depending on the amount, timing, and pattern of use, alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome or other developmental disorders.
Cut back on the caffeine
Many women ask me if they have to give up their morning cup of coffee or tea when they’re pregnant. The good news is, you don’t need to give it up completely! Stick to just one or two cups a day (about 200-300 mg). Consuming greater amounts of caffeine when you’re pregnant could cause growth restriction or miscarriage.
Safe & Unsafe Fish During Pregnancy
The FDA recommends that pregnant women eat 2-3 servings (8-12 ounces) of fish each week. Fish provides protein, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids like DHA. All of these are necessary for your baby’s development.
We’ve already talked about making sure to only eat cooked fish. (Save those sushi dates for after your little one is born.) But it’s important to consider the types of fish you eat and where it comes from because of the amount of mercury, PFOS, or other pollutants that the fish could contain. Some types of fish have higher levels of mercury than others. Mercury is a metal that has been linked to birth defects.
Fish that will provide you with lots of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Freshwater trout
- Pacific mackerel
Other safe fish that don’t have much mercury:
- Canned light tuna — Limit white (albacore) tuna to only 6 oz a week.
Do not eat these fish that are high in mercury:
- Bigeye tuna
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
You also should check advisories about fish caught in local waters. If you’re in Wisconsin, you can learn about which pollutants might be in your locally caught fish on the DNR website here: https://dnr.wi.gov/FCSExternalAdvQry/FishAdvisorySrch.aspx
We’re Here to Help You!
Pregnancy is a wonderful time to begin or continue healthy eating habits. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll be healthier, your baby will be healthier, and you’ll find it easier to manage your pregnancy weight gain.
If you need help creating a healthy menu that you and your family enjoy following, let us know! We can refer you to a nutritionist. And if you have other complications, like gestational diabetes or anemia, we will connect you with someone who specializes in managing these issues during pregnancy.
Dr. Sarah Yanke, OBGYN, has been providing healthcare to women in Madison since 2010, specializing in high and low-risk obstetrics, contraception, management of abnormal uterine bleeding, and minimally invasive surgical techniques. She is a Board Certified Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.