Healthy Eating in Pregnancy
Keeping healthy when you are having a baby depends on both the amount and the type of food you eat before you become pregnant and during your pregnancy. Simply being a correct weight for your height does not necessarily mean that you are eating healthily. Some foods are best avoided if you are planning to become pregnant or if you are already pregnant, as they may contain substances that could affect your unborn baby’s development.
To eat healthily, you should aim to do the following.
- Base your meals on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, choosing wholegrain if possible. These foods are satisfying without containing too many calories.
- Eat at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables every day rather than foods that are higher in fat and calories. Potatoes do not count towards your five-a-day target, and a portion of pure fruit juice only counts as one of your five-a-day, no matter how much you drink.
- Eat a low-fat diet and don’t increase the number of calories you eat. Eat as little fried food as possible and avoid drinks that are high in added sugars, and other foods such as sweets, cakes and biscuits that have a high fat or sugar content.
- Instead, eat fiber-rich foods such as oats, beans, lentils, grains and seeds, as well as wholegrain bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta.
- Eat some protein every day; choose lean meat, and try to eat two portions of fish a week. Lentils, beans and tofu are also a good source of protein.
- Eat dairy foods for calcium but choose low-fat varieties such as skimmed milk or low-fat yogurt.
- Watch the portion size of your meals and snacks and note how often you eat. Do not ‘eat for two’.
- Always eat breakfast.
- Limit your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams (mg) per day, for example two mugs of instant coffee. Be aware that other drinks such as tea and energy drinks also contain caffeine.
Most women do not need any extra calories during the first six months of pregnancy. It is only in the last 12 weeks that they need to eat a little more, and then only an extra 200 calories a day, which is roughly the same as two slices of bread.
What is a ‘healthy’ weight?
You can find out your healthy weight from your BMI (body mass index). This is a measure of your weight in relation to your height. Your doctor work it out for you. A healthy BMI is above 18.5 but below 25. Being overweight carries risks for you and your baby. The more overweight you are, the greater the risks. Being underweight increases the risk of your baby not growing as well as he or she should. . (Use this calculator to check BMI)
Is it safe for me to diet while I am pregnant?
Trying to lose weight by dieting during pregnancy is not recommended as it may harm the health of your unborn baby. If you are concerned about your weight, your doctor can advise you and may refer you to a dietitian.
Is it safe to eat fish while I am pregnant?
In general, eating fish is a healthy option during pregnancy, but the current advice is to eat no more than two portions of oily fish, such as mackerel or salmon, a week. This is because too much of a substance found in oily fish (mercury) can be harmful to an unborn baby’s development. Also, pregnant women should not eat more than two fresh tuna steaks or four medium-sized cans of tuna a week, and should avoid eating shark, swordfish or marlin.
I have been told not to eat liver while I am pregnant. Why?
Liver can contain high levels of vitamin A, which in high doses can harm the development of an unborn baby’s nervous system. It is rare for women in developed countries like the UK to be deficient in vitamin A so you should avoid eating foods such as liver and liver products.
Is it safe to eat peanuts while I am pregnant or breastfeeding?
You can eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) while pregnant or breastfeeding. Eating peanuts does not appear to affect your baby’s chances of developing a peanut allergy. Don’t eat them if you’re allergic to them.
Do I need vitamin supplements when I am pregnant?
Vitamins are needed for growth and development. There are 13 important vitamins: vitamins A, C, D, E and K and the vitamin B series. Apart from vitamin D, which we get from sunlight, most vitamins come from our diet. It is quite common for people to be low in vitamin D and folic acid (vitamin B9). These vitamins are important in pregnancy and you can boost your levels by taking a vitamin supplement. Supplements of other vitamins are not usually advised since they may actually be harmful in pregnancy. (Read detailed article on “Vitamin Supplements in Pregnancy”)
How can I reduce the risk of infection from food?
You can pick up some infections, such as listeria, salmonella or toxoplasmosis, from contaminated food. These can harm your unborn baby.
To reduce your risk of getting listeriosis:
- drink only pasteurized or UHT milk.
- avoid eating ripened soft cheese such as Camembert, Brie or blue-veined cheese; however, hard cheese varieties such as Cheddar, cottage cheese and processed cheese are safe.
- avoid eating pâté.
- avoid eating under cooked food; make sure that ready-prepared meals are cooked as per instructions, paying particular attention to making sure that they are piping hot when reheating.
To reduce your risk of getting salmonella:
- avoid eating raw or partially cooked eggs or food that may contain them, such as some types of mayonnaise or mousses; check the packaging of the food to see what is in it.
- avoid eating raw or partially cooked meat, especially poultry and shellfish.
To reduce your risk of getting toxoplasmosis:
- always wash your hands before and after handling food.
- wash all fruit and vegetables, including ready-prepared salads.
- cook raw meats and ready-prepared chilled meats thoroughly.
- wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after gardening or handling soil.
- avoid contact with cat faeces (in cat litter or in soil) – or, if you must handle it, wear rubber gloves.