A healthy meal is an important part of a healthy lifestyle at any time, but especially vital if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy. Healthy eating keeps you feeling good and gives your baby the essential nutrients they need in the womb.
Overall, aim for a balanced diet, with an appropriate blend of all the 5 food groups:
- vegetables and legumes
- breads and cereals
- milk, yoghurt and cheese
- meat, poultry, fish and alternatives
Aim to drink plenty of water every day — most town water contains fluoride, which helps your growing baby’s teeth develop strong enamel. Some water supplies, such as tank water, do not have fluoride.
You will probably find that you are more hungry than usual, but you don’t need to ‘eat for 2’ — even if you are expecting twins or triplets. It is more important to concentrate on the quality of the food you eat rather than the quantity.
Eating healthily often means just changing the quantities of different foods you eat so that your diet is varied, rather than cutting out all your favourites. For example, if you have a healthy breakfast every day it is easier to avoid snacking on foods that are high in fat and sugar.
You should also avoid certain foods because they are not healthy or they can be dangerous for the baby.
You will need to be careful with your diet if you develop gestational diabetes — your doctor or midwife will advise you.
Fruit and vegetables
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables because these provide vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre, which helps digestion and prevents constipation. Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables a day — these can be fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced. Always wash them carefully. Cook vegetables lightly in a little water, or eat them raw but well washed, to get the benefit of the nutrients they contain.
Starchy foods (carbohydrates)
Starchy foods are an important source of vitamins and fibre, and are satisfying without containing too many calories. They include bread, potatoes, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, maize, millet, oats, sweet potatoes, yams and cornmeal. These foods should be the main part of every meal. Eat whole meal instead of processed (white) varieties when you can.
Foods containing protein help the baby grow. Sources of protein include meat (but avoid liver), fish (however, avoid fish that is high in mercury such as shark/flake, marlin or broadbill/ swordfish), poultry, eggs, beans, legumes/beans and nuts. Eat some protein every day. Choose lean meat, remove the skin from poultry, and cook it using only a little fat.
Make sure eggs, poultry, pork, burgers and sausages are cooked all the way through. Check that there is no pink meat, and that juices have no pink or red in them. Try to eat 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish such as sardines or mackerel.
Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are important because they contain calcium and other nutrients that your baby needs. Choose reduced-fat varieties wherever possible. There are some cheeses that should be avoided — see Foods to avoid.
If you get hungry between meals, don’t eat snacks that are high in fat and/or sugar, such as sweets, biscuits, crisps or chocolate. Instead, choose from the following nutritious snacks:
- sandwiches or pitta bread filled with grated cheese, grilled chicken, mashed tuna, salmon or sardines and salad
- salad vegetables, such as carrot, celery or cucumber
- low-fat yoghurt hummus with bread or vegetable sticks
- ready-to-eat apricots, figs or prunes
- vegetable and bean soups
- unsweetened breakfast cereals, or porridge, with milk
- milky drinks or unsweetened fruit juices
- fresh fruit
- baked beans on toast or a baked potato
Foods to limit
When you are pregnant, you should reduce your intake of:
- foods that are high in sugar, such as chocolate, biscuits, pastries, ice-cream, cake, puddings and soft drinks. Sugar contains calories without providing any other nutrients, and can contribute to weight gain, obesity and tooth decay
- foods that are high in fat, such as all spreading fats (including butter), oils, salad dressings and cream. Fat is very high in calories, and eating more fatty foods is likely to make you put on weight. Having too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases the chance of developing heart disease. Try to cut down on saturated fat, and have foods rich in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat instead, such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado
- foods that contain added salt. Don’t add salt in cooking or at the table
- alcohol: There is no safe level of alcohol during your pregnancy. Whether you are planning a pregnancy, already pregnant or breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option as alcohol can harm your unborn baby
Preparing food safely
- Wash fruit, vegetables and salads to remove all traces of soil, which may contain toxoplasma, a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis, which can harm your unborn baby.
- Wash all surfaces and utensils, and your hands, after preparing raw meat — this will help to avoid toxoplasmosis and other infections such as listeria, campylobacter and salmonella.
- Store raw foods separately from ready-to-eat foods to prevent contamination that leads to food poisoning from meat (such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. Coli).
- Use a separate chopping board for raw meats.
- Heat ready meals until they’re piping hot all the way through — this is especially important for meals containing poultry.
You also need to make sure that some foods, such as eggs and sausages, are cooked very thoroughly.
Learn more about safe food preparation.
The Dietnfitness Guide to Healthy Eating recommends the following servings per day for pregnant women:
8 to 8 ½ servings from the bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles group — an example of 1 serve is 1 slice of bread; ½ medium bread roll; ½ cup of cooked rice, pasta or noodles; ½ cup of cooked porridge or cup of breakfast cereal flakes.
There is an allowance of about 15g a day for poly or monounsaturated fats and oils that can be used to spread on breads or rolls or used elsewhere in the diet.
5 servings from the vegetables, legumes group — an example of 1 serve is 75g or ½ cup cooked vegetables; ½ cup cooked dried beans, peas, lentils or canned beans; 1 cup of salad vegetables; or 1 small potato.
2 servings of fruit — an example of 1 serve is 1 medium apple; 2 small pieces (150g) of fruit (apricots, kiwi fruit, plums); 1 cup of diced fruit pieces or canned fruit; ½ cup of fruit juice; or 1 ½ tablespoons of sultanas.
2 ½ to 3 ½ servings from the milk, yoghurt, cheese group — an example of 1 serve is 250ml of milk; 250ml of calcium-fortified soy beverages; 40g (2 slices) of cheese; or 200g (1 small carton) of yoghurt.
3 ½ servings from the meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes/beans group — an example of 1 serve is 65g cooked meat or chicken; 1 cup of cooked beans; 100g cooked fish fillet; 30g nuts or seeds; or 2 large eggs.