Poor eating habits and excess weight gain may also increase your risk of gestational diabetes and pregnancy or birth complications.
Put simply, choosing healthy, nutritious foods will help ensure the health of you and your baby.
It will also make it a lot easier to lose the pregnancy weight after you’ve given birth.
Here are 13 highly nutritious foods to eat when you’re pregnant.
1. Dairy Products
During pregnancy, you need to consume extra protein and calcium to meet the needs of the growing fetus.
Dairy products contain two types of high-quality protein: casein and whey. Dairy is the best dietary source of calcium, and provides high amounts of phosphorus, various B vitamins, magnesium and zinc.
Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is particularly beneficial for pregnant women.
It contains more calcium than most other dairy products. Some varieties also contain probiotic bacteria, which support digestive health.
People who are lactose intolerant may also be able to tolerate yogurt, especially probiotic yogurt.
Taking probiotic supplements during pregnancy may reduce your risk of complications such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, vaginal infections and allergies.
This group of food includes lentils, peas, beans, chickpeas, soybeans and peanuts.
Legumes are excellent plant-based sources of fiber, protein, iron, folate (B9) and calcium — all of which your body needs more of during pregnancy.
Folate is one of the B vitamins (B9). It’s very important for the health of the mother and fetus, especially during the first trimester.
However, most pregnant women are not consuming nearly enough folate.
This has been linked with an increased risk of neural tube defects and low birth weight. Insufficient folate intake may also cause your child to become more prone to infections and disease later in life.
Legumes contain high amounts of folate. One cup of lentils, chickpeas or black beans may provide from 65–90% of the RDA.
Furthermore, legumes are generally very high in fiber. Some varieties are also high in iron, magnesium and potassium.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are very rich in beta-carotene, a plant compound that is converted into vitamin A in your body.
Vitamin A is essential for growth and the differentiation of most cells and tissues. It’s very important for healthy fetal development.
Pregnant women are generally advised to increase their vitamin A intake by 10–40%.
However, they are also advised to avoid very high amounts of animal-based sources of vitamin A, which may cause toxicity when eaten in excess.
Therefore, beta-carotene is a very important source of vitamin A for pregnant women.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta-carotene. About 3.5–5.3 ounces (100–150 grams) of cooked sweet potato fulfills the entire Reference Daily Intake (RDI).
Furthermore, sweet potatoes contain fiber, which may increase fullness, reduce blood sugar spikes and improve digestive health and mobility.
Salmon is very rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Most people, including pregnant women, are not getting nearly enough omega-3 through their diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential during pregnancy, especially the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.
These are found in high amounts in seafood, and help build the brain and eyes of your fetus.
Yet, pregnant women are generally advised to limit their seafood intake to twice a week, due to the mercury and other contaminants found in fatty fish.
This has caused some women to avoid seafood altogether, thus limiting their intake of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
However, studies have shown that pregnant women who eat 2–3 meals of fatty fish per week achieve the recommended intake of omega-3 and increase their blood levels of EPA and DHA.
What’s more, salmon is one of the very few natural sources of vitamin D, which is often lacking in the diet. It’s very important for many processes in your body, including bone health and immune function.
Eggs are the ultimate health food, as they contain a little bit of almost every nutrient you need.
A large egg contains 77 calories, as well as high-quality protein and fat. It also packs many vitamins and minerals.
Eggs are a great source of choline. Choline is essential for many processes in your body, including brain development and health.
A dietary survey in the US showed that over 90% of people consumed less than the recommended amount of choline.
Low choline intake during pregnancy may increase the risk of neural tube defects and possibly lead to decreased brain function in the fetus.
A single whole egg contains roughly 113 mg of choline, which is about 25% of the RDI for pregnant women (450 mg).
6. Broccoli and Dark, Leafy Greens
Broccoli and dark, green vegetables, such as kale and spinach, contain many of the nutrients pregnant women need.
These include fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, iron, folate and potassium.
Furthermore, broccoli and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants. They also contain plant compounds that benefit the immune system and digestion.
Due to their high fiber content, these vegetables may also help prevent constipation, which is a very common problem among pregnant women.
Consuming green, leafy vegetables has also been linked to a reduced risk of low birth weight.
7. Lean Meat
Beef, pork and chicken are excellent sources of high-quality protein.
Furthermore, beef and pork are also rich in iron, choline and other B vitamins — all of which are needed in higher amounts during pregnancy.
Iron is an essential mineral that is used by red blood cells as a part of hemoglobin. It’s important for delivering oxygen to all cells in your body.
Pregnant women need more iron since their blood volume is increasing. This is particularly important during the third trimester.
Low levels of iron during early and mid-pregnancy may cause iron deficiency anemia, which doubles the risk of premature delivery and low birth weight.
It may be hard to cover iron needs with diet alone, especially since many pregnant women develop an aversion to meat.
However, for those who can, eating red meat regularly may help increase the amount of iron acquired from the diet.
Eating foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as oranges or bell peppers, may also help increase absorption of iron from meals.
8. Fish Liver Oil
Fish liver oil is made from the oily liver of fish, most often cod.
The oil is very rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are essential for fetal brain and eye development.
Fish liver oil is also very high in vitamin D, of which many people don’t get enough. It may be highly beneficial for those who don’t regularly eat seafood or supplement with omega-3 or vitamin D.
Low vitamin D intake has been linked with an increased risk of preeclampsia. This potentially dangerous complication is characterized by high blood pressure, swelling of the hands and feet and protein in the urine.
Consuming cod liver oil during early pregnancy has been linked to higher birth weight and a lower risk of disease later in the baby’s life.
A single serving (one tablespoon or 15 ml) of fish liver oil provides more than the recommended daily intake of omega-3, vitamin D and vitamin A.
However, it’s not recommended to consume more than one serving per day, as too much preformed vitamin A can be dangerous for your fetus. High levels of omega-3 may also have blood-thinning effects.
Berries are packed with water, healthy carbs, vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants.
They generally contain high amounts of vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron.
Vitamin C is also important for skin health and immune function.
Berries have a relatively low glycemic index value, so they should not cause major spikes in blood sugar.
Berries are also a great snack, as they contain both water and fiber. They provide a lot of flavor and nutrition, but with relatively few calories.
10. Whole Grains
Eating whole grains may help pregnant women meet their increased calorie requirements, especially during the second and third trimesters.
As opposed to refined grains, whole grains are packed with fiber, vitamins and plant compounds.
Oats and quinoa also contain a fair amount of protein, which is important during pregnancy.
Additionally, whole grains are generally rich in B vitamins, fiber and magnesium. All of these are frequently lacking in the diets of pregnant women.
Avocados are an unusual fruit because they contain a lot of monounsaturated fatty acids.
They’re also high in fiber, B vitamins (especially folate), vitamin K, potassium, copper, vitamin E and vitamin C.
Because of their high content of healthy fats, folate and potassium, avocados are a great choice for pregnant women.
The healthy fats help build the skin, brain and tissues of your fetus, and folate may help prevent neural tube defects.
Potassium may help relieve leg cramps, a side effect of pregnancy for some women. In fact, avocados contain more potassium than bananas.
12. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit is generally high in calories, fiber and various vitamins and minerals.
One piece of dried fruit contains the same amount of nutrients as fresh fruit, just without all the water and in a much smaller form.
Therefore, one serving of dried fruit can provide a large percentage of the recommended intake of many vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron and potassium.
Prunes are rich in fiber, potassium, vitamin K and sorbitol. They’re natural laxatives and may be very helpful in relieving constipation.
Dates are high in fiber, potassium, iron and plant compounds. Regular date consumption during the third trimester may help facilitate cervical dilation and reduce the need to induce labor.
However, dried fruit also contains high amounts of natural sugar. Make sure to avoid the candied varieties, which contain even more sugar.
Although dried fruit may help increase calorie and nutrient intake, it’s generally not recommended to consume more than one serving at a time.
During pregnancy, blood volume increases by up to 1.5 liters or about 50 ounces. Therefore, it’s important to stay properly hydrated.
Your fetus usually gets everything it needs, but if you don’t watch your water intake, you may become dehydrated.
Symptoms of mild dehydration include headaches, anxiety, tiredness, bad mood and reduced memory.
Furthermore, increasing your water intake may help relieve constipation and reduce your risk of urinary tract infections, which are common during pregnancy.
General guidelines recommend drinking about 68 ounces or 2 liters of water per day, but the amount you really need varies by individual.
As an estimate, you should be drinking about 34–68 ounces (1–2 liters) each day. Just keep in mind that you also get water from other foods and beverages, such as fruit, vegetables, coffee and tea.
As a rule of thumb, you should always drink water when you’re thirsty and drink until you’ve quenched your thirst.
The Bottom Line
What you eat during pregnancy affects your energy and well-being.
It may also directly affect the health and development of your baby.
Since calorie and nutrient needs are increased, it’s very important that you choose nutrient-dense, healthy foods.
Gaining weight during pregnancy is normal, but it’s important to gain it in a healthy way. This benefits you, your baby and your health after the pregnancy.