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July 13, 2020 / Amy Height

What to Eat When You're Expecting

Pregnant woman shopping for fruits at an open air market

When you're expecting, your body needs more of everything: more rest, more hydration, more nutrients, and more calories. When it comes to food, every woman’s body responds to pregnancy differently. While some experience intense cravings from the beginning, others experience marked changes in taste preferences, thirst, and frequency of meals.

During this time of transition, it is important to be mindful and listen to what your body asks for. Awareness of what your body needs and how it reacts will provide a barometer for your health and help you make wise decisions about what to eat when you’re pregnant.

It’s also important to remember a few general guidelines about what to eat and what not to eat when pregnant, to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need to grow a healthy human. To get you started, we’ve put together this useful guide to learn about the nutrients you need, the best foods to eat when pregnant, and some handy tips to make the most out of the next 9 months.

Before making any dietary changes, make sure you discuss your plan with your doctor or health care provider.

Know Your Nutrients

When researching what to eat when pregnant, a good place to start is learning about essential nutrients. A balance of proteins, healthy fats, and carbohydrates ensures your body receives what it needs to stay strong and nourish your baby as they grow. A developing baby will pull nutrients from your tissues whether or not you have the excess to share, so eating plenty of healthy food is key for both of you.

Many of key nutrients on your pregnancy diet checklist can actually be beneficial whether you’re pregnant or not. Eating a healthy diet before pregnancy is a great way to take a proactive approach to your health and wellbeing, and prepare your body for being pregnant. To begin, start by including the following nutrients in your diet regularly:

Iron to oxygenate blood

Iron is an essential nutrient for both pregnant and not-pregnant women, as it supports proper blood cell development and the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to your body’s tissues. When you're pregnant, your body needs 27 milligrams of iron per day; comparatively, women who aren't pregnant need 18 milligrams of iron per day (this advice is for women between 19 and 50 years of age).. Without proper iron intake, you may develop iron deficiency anemia, which may inhibit your baby’s development.

Some signs of iron deficiency anemia are:

Many women opt to take a prenatal multivitamin to make sure they're getting enough iron; your health care provider can recommend if this option is right for you. In addition to taking a supplement, the following foods are good sources of iron to include in your diet while pregnant:

Calcium for bone development and support

Calcium is an integral part of what to eat when pregnant because as a baby’s bones develop, calcium may be leached from Mom’s bones and donated to the baby. It's important to maintain your bone integrity while pregnant, which is why calcium is a necessary part of what to eat when expecting. During the third trimester, a baby’s bone development increases dramatically, so it’s especially important to make sure you’re getting sufficient calcium in this final phase of pregnancy.

Pregnant women need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day; which translates to consuming about four calcium-rich foods per day . If you’re taking a prenatal vitamin, that may provide calcium, but it still may not be enough to reach the optimal amount. Eating calcium-rich foods in combination with a high-quality supplement will help you get the calcium you need to support your body and your baby’s development.

Try adding these calcium-rich foods to your diet:

B Vitamins for brain, nervous system, and hormones

B vitamins are important for energy metabolism and preventing birth defects pregnancy. There are a range of B vitamins to include in your diet, and these can be found in foods or a high-quality vitamin B supplement (also sometimes referred to as vitamin b complex).

Try adding these vitamin b-rich foods to your diet:

What Not to Eat When You’re Pregnant

While there are lots of things you can eat, there are a few things to avoid during your pregnancy for your safety and the baby’s.

Deli meat

Preserved or cured meat that you purchase fresh or prepackaged can be contaminated with listeria, a bacterium that may cause blood infections and increase the potential for miscarriage. If you plan on eating deli meat while pregnant, make sure you heat it to steaming in the microwave or oven, as this kills listeria.

Undercooked meat, fish, and eggs

These foods can spread listeria, salmonella, toxoplasmosis, and coliform bacteria. Ensure these foods are well-done. This also includes sushi and smoked seafood like lox. If you're still craving seafood, opt for the canned, shelf-stable variety as these carry a much lower risk of bacteria.

Seafoods with high-mercury content

Swordfish, mackerel, and other high-mercury content foods should be avoided. Mercury can contribute to a number of issues such as lung, kidney, and nervous system problems.

Unpasteurized dairy and juices

Raw milk, certain soft cheeses, and cold-pressed juices that are unpasteurized can spread listeria. Luckily, pasteurized options are the norm in the dairy and juice aisle of the supermarket, so you shouldn't have to cut these foods out of your diet.

What to Eat When Pregnant

Now that you know some of the do’s and don’ts of what to eat when expecting, let’s take a closer look at what foods you can eat to best support you and your baby. In addition to all the great nutritional benefits, eating regular meals can help satisfy your hunger and prevent nausea from taking over. Try these foods to keep you nourished all nine months and beyond.

Leafy greens

wooden salad bowl full of kale spinach and baby beetroot greens with wooden serving spoons

Leafy greens are good for you regardless if you’re pregnant or not. They provide your body with healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamins, C, K, and A, in addition to calcium, iron, folate, and potassium.

If you’re struggling with constipation, the high fiber found in leafy greens may help with keeping bowel movements regular. Here are some of our favorite leafy greens to try:

Hard-boiled eggs

wooden bowl full of hard-boiled eggs with garnish

Protein is an essential part of a nutritious diet, and during pregnancy it’s even more important. Pregnant women should try to get between 75 to 100 grams of protein per day to aid with healthy brain and tissue development. One quick, easy way to reach this goal is to add hard-boiled eggs to your diet.

Cooking a batch of hard-boiled eggs takes just a few minutes and you can toss them in the fridge so they’re ready to take on-the-go. In addition to protein, they offer vitamins B2, B12, and B5. They're also a complete protein, meaning that they contain all the essential amino acids, which makes them an ideal protein source.

Yogurt

three glass bowls full of plain yogurt fruit and granola on a wooden board

In addition to protein, most yogurts contain live and active cultures that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome and offer substantial amounts of calcium. To make sure your yogurt contains these good bacteria, check the label to confirm that it lists "live and active cultures." If you’re lactose intolerant, choose a lactose-free or plant-based alternative for the same probiotic benefits.

Legumes

bowl of chickpeas with a green garnish on top

When you think of what to eat when pregnant, you may not think of legumes at first, but they’re a delicious and budget-friendly source of protein, fiber, and folate. Canned, fresh, and dried varieties all offer a plethora of nutritional benefits. Here are some easy options to incorporate into your diet:

Eat Frequent, Small Meals

To keep blood sugar stable (and to keep morning sickness in check), small frequent meals or snacks can be a great strategy when choosing what to eat when pregnant. Aim to eat something every 2-3 hours to help with nausea and stay nourished throughout the day.

Having something handy in your purse or at your desk can be a lifesaver for those sudden blood sugar plummets. Some quick options include things like avocado, leftover sweet potato, whole-grain sprouted bread with nut butter, canned fish or beans, hummus, hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, and fresh fruit. Orange juice, yogurt, or an English muffin can also work wonders if you’re short on energy but feeling queasy.

Don’t Worry About Eating Perfectly

There will be days when the thought of eating cooked vegetables is downright gross (but eating four bags of popcorn feels necessary). Know that your body will tell you what it’s looking for: just tune in and have nourishing foods handy for times when carrots and brown rice aren’t the answer. For those other times, indulge in your treat of choice and don’t beat yourself up. Balance is essential!

The Takeaway

Pregnancy is a beautiful time to learn about your body, nourish yourself and your baby, and prepare to celebrate a new life. That said, we know that selecting what to eat and what not to eat when pregnant can feel overwhelming.

Here at PlateJoy, we want to help you enjoy every moment by offering simple, easy meal plans, recipes, and grocery lists that help you get all the nutrition you need. We even offer vegan meal plans for those mamas that don’t eat animal products. Check out our meal planning assistant and start personalizing your pregnancy meal plan today.

This content is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is provided for information purposes only.

Amy Height
Holistic Nutritionist @ From the Ground Up Wellness

Amy Height is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice where she specializes in plant-based nutrition and helping her clients combat food addiction. She completed her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she received her certification in the Health Coach Training Program. She is a triathlete and CrossFitter with a passion for all things outdoors. By night, Amy stage manages Broadway musicals and she frequently travels North America seeking out the best vegan restaurants and the best run courses. Follow her on Instagram or check out her blog for recipe and wellness ideas.

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