Pregnancy Diet: Foods to Eat and Avoid. Here’s What Nutritionists Say 2022

Blanca Garcia

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

Healthy eating during pregnancy should be your primary goal. Eating nutritious foods will help you obtain essential nutrients that can help you and your baby. Most importantly, a balanced diet can help you have a healthy pregnancy, prevent neural tube defects, decrease the risk of birth defects, achieve weight gain steadily, and help develop your baby’s brain. 

A daily prenatal vitamin that includes folic acid is recommended along with healthy food choices to obtain the essential nutrients for pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins can be purchased over the counter or prescribed by your medical provider. 

Is there such a thing as a pregnancy diet? 

The reality is you can eat your usual healthy diet if you already had a balanced diet before becoming pregnant. A balanced diet often includes nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins, and whole grains.

If you feel your diet is not balanced or are experiencing morning sickness, that may cause vomiting. Consider a healthy pregnancy diet that includes all food groups in each meal. Read on for the best foods for pregnancy. 

13 Best Foods to Eat When You’re Pregnant

Although the top nutrients needed during pregnancy can be obtained through vitamin and mineral supplementation, the best source is food. According to the World Health Organization (WHO)[1], preventing deaths and complications from preterm birth starts with a healthy pregnancy. A healthy pregnancy starts with a good diet.

In these 13 healthy foods, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, and iron are all important for a baby’s development.

Brown Rice

Considered a cereal grain; it’s a very important staple among many countries and cultures. 

A great source of complex carbohydrates, also known as fiber, brown rice can help you maintain your sugar levels and give you the energy you need to keep you energized and nourished[2]

Citrus Foods

These are typically oranges, grapefruit, lemon, limes, tomato, pomelo, and tangerines. These citrus fruits give you a good source of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), an antioxidant that fights oxidative stress. Not only that, these foods include a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber that promote health and well-being. 

Dairy Foods

Your protein and calcium needs increase during pregnancy; the best way to obtain these key nutrients is to include dairy products. The most important nutrient from dairy products is calcium; it is the most abundant mineral in the body and is essential for the development of teeth and bones and helps keep tissues rigid and strong[3]

You will also naturally get B vitamins, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc for your baby’s brain development. Milk is often fortified with vitamin A, and D, also important nutrients.  

These foods typically include milk, cheese, and yogurt. Some other dairy products are butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and cream cheese. The list of dairy products is extensive and changes based on cultural use. 

Some people may be lactose intolerant; therefore, dairy products may not be appropriate to consume. But don’t worry, all the nutrients found in dairy products can also be found in other foods; that’s why various foods are important. Low-lactose milk is also available for the lactose intolerant or Lactaid enzymes can be taken so you can enjoy the full dairy experience without worrying about the lactose side effects.

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables 

If you want the highest amount of nutrients, vegetables like kale, romaine lettuce, and spinach can provide jam-packed nutrients. The cool thing about these is they are plant-based iron-rich foods that can be cooked into any dish or eaten raw. They have been linked to preventing low birth weight when consumed[4].

Fatty Fish

Although it sounds weird to think that something with the word fat can be healthy, this type of fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat. Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through diet, making this an essential fatty acid[5]

The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. 

Of course, omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in plant-based foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. 

In particular, salmon is also a good source of vitamin D; you can get vitamin D through the sun, but having an adequate amount is important for calcium absorption. A recent study[6] has recommended that pregnant women get 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day and prenatal vitamins usually only have 400 IU so additional food and supplement sources should be sought.

Fresh Fruit 

Any fruit, either fresh, frozen, or canned, is better than none. But if you have the option, fresh is the best. It contains fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water unadulterated, with no added sugars. 

Green Vegetables

Adding vegetables whenever possible includes an array of vitamins and minerals; these can be added to soups, casseroles, salads, or even desserts. 

Typically, you can get vitamin A, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron, and most importantly, fiber from vegetables. Fiber helps with symptoms of constipation which are typical in pregnancy, helps with blood sugar control, and helps maintain weight[7].

Lean Meats

Consuming protein-rich foods is important for baby tissue development and tissue repair for the mother, among other functions. You can get high-quality lean protein in a variety of animal-based foods and plant-based foods. 

The best choice is lean meat; these can be lean beef, pork, turkey, or chicken. These are foods rich in iron. Iron carries oxygen in red blood cells, and having an adequate amount of iron can help combat iron deficiency anemia, which is quite common in pregnancy[8] and can also be aided with iron supplements. 

Legumes

A group of foods rich in plant-based protein is seeds that can be cooked and made into a variety of meals. These foods also include complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. 

Adding legumes to your diet can help maintain a balance in the type of protein you introduce into your diet[9]. This is a great alternative for pregnant women that are vegetarian or vegan.

Other nutrients found in legumes:

  • Folic Acid
  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • Phosphorous 

Most used legumes are beans, soybeans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, and tamarind. 

Orange Juice

If there is any juice you should consider adding to your pregnancy diet, orange juice is it.  Especially choosing a fresh juice with pulp will provide you with the best source of vitamin C, fiber, water, carbohydrates, potassium, iron, and folate. The better option when thirsty will always be water, but if anything, 100% juice is appropriate. The only time you may need to limit juice is toward the end of pregnancy, when most women may develop gestational diabetes or if excessive weight gain is a problem. 

Sweet Potatoes

When cooked, sweet potatoes can be added to many dishes. This particular food is very rich in important nutrients that pregnant women need. Vitamin A[10]and vitamin C[11] are above the 20% recommended daily value and can help with vision and tissue repair. The darker the flesh inside the sweet potato, the more nutrients it contains. 

If you find a sweet potato plant in your garden, the leaves can also be consumed as a leafy green vegetable. 

Vegetable Oils

Choosing healthy fat to cook foods with can be the least of your worries, but as your pregnancy develops, choosing healthy options is important. That includes ditching the animal-based fat like butter which can contribute to your risk for heart disease. 

Vegetable oil is a plant-based alternative with no cholesterol and can be used on salads when cooking meats or sauteeing vegetables. The idea is that you add fats that are healthy and needed for the development of your baby. 

Whole Grains

Including them in your diet adds the much-needed complex carbohydrate for healthy digestion and energy, B vitamins, phosphorus, and even some protein. Some breakfast cereals come fortified with iron and folic acid. 

Others like whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, or whole wheat tortillas can bring in extra fibers, vitamins, and minerals for bowel movement regulation and overall feelings of fullness and satisfaction. 

Food To Avoid During Pregnancy

There are two types of foods pregnant women should avoid; the ones that can cause illness and those that don’t help. 

In the case of foods that cause disease, pregnant women have an immune system that becomes increasingly delicate. It can quickly succumb to foodborne illness. With foods that don’t help, certain foods offer calories but not much more in the nutrient department. 

Raw fish

During pregnancy, it’s important not to consume raw seafood and fish or smoked salmon. As the immune system of a pregnant woman is delicate and uncooked foods can have harmful toxins, bacteria, and viruses leading to food poisoning[12]

Avoid:

  • Uncooked sushi
  • Uncooked oysters, prawns, and scallops
  • Smoked salmon

Fish with High Levels of Mercury

Mercury is a heavy metal, and too much for an unborn baby can be harmful[12].

Avoid fish with high levels of mercury:

  • Tilefish
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Marlin

Deli Meats

Deli meats are not cooked and can have parasites that, when eating these foods, can cause toxoplasmosis, leading to miscarriage. Liver and liver products have a large amount of vitamin A that can cause toxicity in an unborn baby; game meats can have lead from lead bullets[12].

Avoid cold cured meats:

  • Salami
  • Pepperoni
  • Prosciutto
  • Chorizo. 
  • Liver and liver products, 
  • Paté, or vegetarian paté
  • Game meats

Some Dairy products

Dairy products are important for their fortified vitamin A and vitamin D. Still, there are some products you should avoid during your pregnancy. 

  • Unpasteurized cow’s milk, goat milk, or creams
  • Soft cheeses
  • Pasteurized or unpasteurized mold soft cheeses with a white covering like Brie
  • Pasteurized or unpasteurized soft blue cheeses like gorgonzola[12]

Foods that don’t help are those that don’t contribute to the nutrient pool. Highly processed, convenience foods, sodas, pastries, and fruit juices. These tend to add unnecessary calories fast and can cause weight gain that goes out of control and may not provide a variety of vitamins and minerals the body needs. 

Conclusion

Knowing what to eat when pregnant can feel and be overwhelming; you wonder if you need to eat low fat, should you take a prenatal supplement, and what to avoid eating to prevent food poisoning. But pregnancy nutrition is much easier than you think. 

Consulting with health professionals like a Registered Dietitian can be a good place to start. These health professionals are up to date with the best advice for both you and your growing baby.  They will help you determine the best foods to eat while pregnant, post-partum, and lactating. While pregnant, they can teach you how to manage food cravings, choose healthy snacks, choose folic acid supplementation, and avoid deficiencies. 

Always double-check with your doctor for any medical history that may affect what you eat and how you manage your pregnancy.


+ 12 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

  1. WHO. (2018). Preterm birth. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preterm-birth.
  2. Lee, Y. M., Kim, S. A., Lee, I. K., Kim, J. G., Park, K. G., Jeong, J. Y., Jeon, J. H., Shin, J. Y., & Lee, D. H. (2016). Effect of a Brown Rice Based Vegan Diet and Conventional Diabetic Diet on Glycemic Control of Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A 12-Week Randomized Clinical Trial. PloS one, 11(6), e0155918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155918
  3. NIH. (2022). Calcium – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/.
  4. Gete, D., Waller, M. and Mishra, G. (2020). Prepregnancy dietary patterns and risk of preterm birth and low birth weight: findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health –  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 111(5), pp. 1048-1058. DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa057.
  5. NIH. (2022). Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/.
  6. American Pregnancy Association. (2017). Vitamin D and Pregnancy. Available at: https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/pregnancy-health-wellness/vitamin-d-and-pregnancy/.
  7. Mayo Clinic. (2021). Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983
  8. NIH. (2022). Iron – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
  9. Harvard T.H.Chan. (2019). Legumes and Pulses. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/legumes-pulses/.
  10. Islam, S. N., Nusrat, T., Begum, P., & Ahsan, M. (2016). Carotenoids and β-carotene in orange-fleshed sweet potato: A possible solution to vitamin A deficiency. Food Chemistry, 199, 628–631. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.12.057
  11. NIH. (2021). Vitamin C – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Vitaminc-Healthprofessional/.
  12. NHS. (2020). Foods to avoid in pregnancy. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/foods-to-avoid/.
Blanca Garcia

Written by:

Blanca Garcia, RDN

Medically reviewed by:

Blanca is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance nutrition writer from Los Angeles, CA. She has more than 8 year’s experience in nutrition and dietetics. She is a Latina and enjoys traditional Mexican and Salvadoran cooking, eating flavorful meals and sharing her knowledge about food and nutrition with others through her writing.

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