Psst… I am going to let you in on a little secret. The title above is slightly deceiving. There is no one food that you must eat during pregnancy to remain healthy.
If a particular food listed below does not fit your dietary preferences, don’t sweat it! Choose other foods that contain similar nutrients. Some nutrients that are especially important to focus on including folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamin D, DHA, and iodine.
There are certain vitamins and minerals that you must include in your diet during pregnancy. Thankfully, all of the essential nutrients are contained in a wide range of different foods. If you eat enough calories and get a variety from each of the five food groups, you should meet your nutrient needs.
Healthcare practitioners often recommend a prenatal supplement, which will also help you to meet your elevated nutrient needs during pregnancy. As mentioned in the pregnancy diet article, you should not use supplementation as a replacement for health-promoting foods. Nutrients consumed within their natural food matrices contain non-essential but beneficial components that supplements do not provide.
As always, the suggestions made below may not be what is best for you and your individual needs. Consult with your physician or a registered dietitian if you have specific questions about your diet. Their advice to you takes precedence over-generalized nutrition information on the internet.
Are you ready to learn about some of the top foods to consume during pregnancy? Keep reading!
Eggs are one of the best sources of the essential nutrient choline. One hard-boiled egg contains 147 mg of choline. The AI for choline during pregnancy is 450 mg per day and 550 mg per day during lactation.
Approximately 90-95% of women are not meeting the Adequate Intake level for choline during pregnancy. Your prenatal supplement likely contains little or no choline. It can be challenging to meet elevated choline needs during pregnancy without animal-based foods.
Unfortunately, maternal deficiencies of this nutrient can negatively impact fetal brain development. Need another reason to pay attention to your intake of this critical nutrient? “Choline deficiency is the only nutrient deficiency shown to induce the development of spontaneous carcinoma.”
If you are a vegetarian, enjoying eggs daily is a great way to help you meet your choline needs. Some other choline-packed options for omnivores include beef liver (discussed below) and beef top round. Soybeans are one of the best plant-based options for choline, though not as high in choline as eggs per serving.
Salmon is one of the best natural food sources of vitamin D and vitamin B12. Vitamin D is essential to the teeth and bone development of the fetus. Choose canned salmon with the bones to get some calcium as well.
As if those benefits were not sufficient, salmon is a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Getting at least 200 mg of DHA per day during pregnancy promotes healthy fetal brain and eye development. These omega-3s cannot be found naturally in plant foods, though vegans can get them in an algal oil supplement.
The Dietary Guidelines recommend that pregnant women eat 8-12 ounces per week of low-mercury seafood. Consuming this amount of DHA-rich seafood while pregnant and breastfeeding is linked to better infant health outcomes. This includes improved visual-motor and communication skills.
Some prenatal vitamins do not contain DHA, so check the label to see if yours provides this important nutrient. DHA-fortified foods are another way to get this healthy fatty acid into your diet. However, many of these products contain far less DHA than fatty fish.
With all of its nutrient benefits, salmon are a great fish to choose from. Don’t like salmon? Sardines are another fatty fish that makes a great alternative.
Your needs for iron increase significantly during pregnancy, from 18 mg to 27 mg per day. Your body uses the additional iron to make blood that supplies oxygen to the fetus. Unfortunately, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy.
“Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of maternal and infant mortality, premature birth, and low birth weight.” Minor deficiencies of this nutrient may leave you feeling weak and tired.
Luckily, you can help to prevent iron deficiency with a well-planned diet and by taking a prenatal supplement. Consider making lean beef a regular part of your healthy pregnancy diet. Lean beef choices include 96/4 ground beef, as well as cuts with “loin” or “round” in the name.
Beef is a rich source of heme iron, the most readily absorbed type of iron. Adding meats such as beef to your diet can also help to increase your absorption of non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is the less readily absorbed type of iron in plant foods.
If you have a beef with the environmental impact of beef, don’t sell yourself short on getting this important source of nutrition. Purchase your beef from farms that are good environmental stewards. Voting with your dollar helps the farms that are using regenerative agriculture to thrive.
Consider keeping beef as a regular part of your family’s healthy diet after the birth of your new arrival. Iron-rich pureed meats, such as beef, are an excellent first solid food option for babies.
Unsweetened (plain) Greek Yogurt
Dietary needs for calcium do not change during pregnancy because calcium absorption is more efficient during pregnancy. Your maternal bone calcium mobilization also increases. However, that doesn’t mean that calcium is unimportant.
The fetus needs calcium for bone, heart, teeth, muscle, and nerve development. Calcium is stripped from your bones for the fetus if you do not consume enough in your diet.
Enjoying some unsweetened Greek yogurt daily can help you to meet your calcium needs during pregnancy. Dairy products are also a great source of potassium. Opting for the plain varieties of yogurt can help you skip the added sugars.
Choose dairy products that are fortified with vitamins A and D. If you do not use cow’s milk products, goat’s milk yogurt is another excellent option. Both types of yogurt offer potentially beneficial probiotics, giving it a healthy edge over plain milk.
Need yet another reason to enjoy yogurt daily? Yogurt is one of the best natural sources of iodine, another nutrient that is particularly important during pregnancy. One cup of plain low-fat yogurt provides 75 mcg of this nutrient.
During pregnancy, the RDA for iodine increases from 150 mcg to 220 mcg. A “substantial portion” of pregnant women in the U.S. have suboptimal iodine status. Only about half of the prenatal supplements in the U.S. contain this nutrient.
Severe iodine deficiency is the most common cause of preventable intellectual disability worldwide. Deficiency of this nutrient during pregnancy can cause irreversible effects in the fetus. Severe iodine deficiency can also lead to underweight in the baby, miscarriage, or stillbirth.
Non-dairy yogurt alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to dairy yogurt products. They are an unreliable source of iodine, often contain little protein, and may not be calcium-fortified. If you choose to include these products in your diet, it is extremely important to check the nutrition facts labels.
The salt used in processed foods is often not iodized, and kosher salt and sea salt naturally contains little iodine. Make sure to purchase iodized salt if you are using salt to help meet your iodine needs.
Seaweed products are another source of iodine for vegans. However, at 16-2,984 mcg per serving, you cannot necessarily depend on this food to be a reliable iodine source. Choosing to restrict dairy foods during pregnancy may put you at risk for iodine insufficiency.
Unsweetened Fortified Hot Cereals
It is critical to meet your needs for folic acid and iron during pregnancy. Choose fortified hot cereals that contain these nutrients to help you get there. Cold cereals are often loaded with added sugar, so go for an unsweetened hot cereal instead.
Getting adequate folic acid can help to reduce the risk of malformations that impact the spinal cord. This critical nutrient may also help to prevent heart defects and cleft lip and palate.
Your needs for folate/folic acid increase during pregnancy from 400 mcg per day to 600 mcg. It is recommended that at least 400 mcg of this comes from folic acid. This is the more bioavailable form of this vitamin found in fortified foods and supplements.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, make sure to combine your iron-fortified cereal with vitamin C-rich foods. This can help your body to increase the absorption of the non-heme iron in the cereal. An example of this is to top your oatmeal with some berries, such as the raspberries or blackberries below.
Raspberries or Blackberries
Animal-based foods tend to be the best sources of some of the critical pregnancy nutrients mentioned at the top of the article. However, I did not want to leave fruits and vegetables off the list altogether! These foods are rich in phytochemicals, non-essential but beneficial dietary components that you won’t find in animal-based foods.
If you need another excuse to enjoy some tasty berries, constipation is a common pregnancy complaint. You can help to reduce this discomfort by making sure that your diet has enough fiber. Raspberries and blackberries are both fiber-packed, and they can help to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Both fresh and unsweetened frozen berries are great options for enjoying these fruits. Legumes are another top pick for fiber, and they tend to cost far less than berries.
Including some healthy fat in the diet is important at all stages of life. Certain types of fatty acids are essential to include! Fats give you energy and help build the placenta and many fetal organs.
Try to include some foods with healthy fat in your diet, like avocado, instead of heavily relying on added oils. Avocadoes are rich in monounsaturated fats, the same type of fat that is in olive oil. If you don’t like avocadoes, nuts and seeds are some other healthy options for monounsaturated fats.
I’m going to get real with you here. Beef liver is an acquired taste, one that I’ve never been able to acclimate my taste buds to. If you do enjoy liver, however, don’t forget to include some in your pregnancy diet. It is a nutrient powerhouse!
A three-ounce serving of beef liver contains a whopping 356 mg of choline, making it easy for you to meet the DV. This is one of the few natural food sources that beats out eggs in choline content.
Liver is also a rock star source of folate, containing 215 mcg per three-ounce serving. Additionally, liver is one of the best natural food sources of retinol. Retinol is the highly bioavailable form of vitamin A that you can find in animal-based food sources.
There are some strategies that you can adopt if you really dislike liver but want to include it in your diet. Consider hiding small amounts of finely chopped liver in dishes such as meatloaf or Bolognese sauce. If beef liver really isn’t working for you, try chicken liver, it is milder tasting.
Foods such as pate and liverwurst contain liver and are another way to help you include this food. Think outside of the traditional liver and onions. You may end up becoming a liver lover!
Final Thoughts About Foods For Pregnancy
How many of the above foods do you regularly consume? If these are making it into your diet regularly, great job!
However, don’t worry too much if you dislike some of the above foods. As mentioned at the top of the article, there are many foods that can help you meet your nutrient needs.
Do you dislike eggs? Include other foods that are rich in choline and high-quality protein.
Not a fan of lean beef? Make sure you are either getting other sources of heme iron or combining your non-heme iron foods with vitamin C.
By consistently consuming a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods during your pregnancy, you are setting the stage for lifelong health. Happy eating!
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.