Struggling to determine the right things to eat and not to eat while you’re expecting? We break down everything you need for the optimal pregnancy diet.
Figuring out what to eat during pregnancy can be difficult—you may be nauseous and disgusted by food, or perhaps you’re ravenous and having unusual cravings. Or maybe you’re just nervous and downright confused about what you can and can’t eat. It’s also totally normal to experience all of these things at different points. No pregnancy is the same.
One thing every pregnant woman does have in common is that their nutritional needs have changed. You are no longer eating with just your health in mind; the food you consume will also nourish your growing baby. While studies suggest that you don’t need to eat that much more or “eat for two” when you’re pregnant, you do need to eat smarter.
The nutrients you need (and don’t) during pregnancy
Nutrients like folate (critical for the production of DNA) and choline (essential for your baby’s neurological and spinal cord development) become even more important during pregnancy. Studies also show that pregnant women have a greater need for omega 3 fatty acids. DHA, a type of fatty acid, is critical for the development and functioning of the central nervous system.
Getting healthy bacteria is also essential during pregnancy—studies revealed that mother’s lack of exposure to healthy bacteria during pregnancy can result in your child’s development of allergies and asthma. Take a good probiotic!
Nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamins A, C, E, K, and B vitamins are also important. Look to your leafy greens for these vitamins, which also provide fiber to keep you regular and support blood sugar balance. For extra support, these are also in most prenatal vitamins.
Why pregnancy nutrition is so important
A major concern during pregnancy for both mom and baby is gestational diabetes. This is when there is an increased amount of sugar being delivered to the baby through the mother’s placenta, which can result in a large birth weight, increased risk of c-section and uterine rupture, vaginal lacerations, birth abnormalities of the baby, hypoglycemia in the baby, heart abnormalities and obesity in childhood and beyond.
While some people think that only overweight women are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, women of any size can develop insulin resistance. Luckily, most women can achieve normal blood glucose levels with nutrition therapy alone.
Another concern for women during pregnancy is low iron or anemia. Risk factors for a mother with low iron levels are preeclampsia, bleeding, and infection. This condition can also result in low iron in your baby, both in utero and as a newborn. During the first trimester, iron levels are especially important for your baby’s health and if not treated can result in prematurity, inability to grow properly, and low birth weight.
Studies are even revealing that what you eat during pregnancy can impact your baby’s taste preferences and desires as a child and adult—more incentive to stay away from sugar and eat your veggies.
Need extra guidance for eating a nutrient dense diet and managing your blood sugar while pregnant? These tips will help you create the ideal pregnancy diet.
What to eat during pregnancy
Eat real, whole foods.
This includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, grass-fed meats, wild fish and organic poultry. Avoid foods that come in a package. There is no one-size-fits-all diet, however a diet rich in whole foods will serve you and your baby well.
Eat carbohydrates with a low glycemic index.
The key here is fiber— carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, also known as complex carbohydrates, still contain natural sugars but they also contain a reasonable amount of fiber, which slows down the absorption of glucose. Eating foods with a lower glycemic index has shown to improve insulin levels during pregnancy.
Some fiber-rich and nutrient dense carbohydrates include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, red cabbage, green beans, Japanese sweet potatoes, yams, quinoa, winter squash, beans, and brown rice. (In my first trimester, the easiest carbs for me to get down were quinoa, wild rice, sweet potatoes and sourdough bread.)
Limit fruit to 2-3 servings a day.
Fruit is high in antioxidants, but does contain a fair amount of sugar. Great low sugar options are blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, pears, and green apples. Remember to pair these carbohydrates with fat and protein, for example a small handful of nuts or nut butter.
Foods to avoid while pregnant
Remove refined carbohydrates.
Refined carbohydrates increase your blood sugar levels quickly. This includes thing like white breads and pastas, cookies, candy, sugar cane, agave, juice concentrates, powdered sugar, instant oatmeal, instant rice, potato starch, corn starch, cereals, waffles, pastries, and bagels.
Eliminate sugary drinks.
Beware of green juices that contain fruit. Juices don’t have fiber that you might get if you ate the entire fruit or blended it in a smoothie so you are ingesting pure sugar. A juice made exclusively with greens and lemon (low sugar), for example is a better option. If you want something sweeter, go for a smoothie with fruit and add fat, protein and fiber.
Cut out all high mercury fish.
Tuna, shark, largemouth bass, swordfish, marlin, halibut, pike, King mackerel, tilefish, sea bass, Gulf Coast oysters, and walleye all contain high levels of mercury, which can impair your baby’s brain and nervous system development.
Avoid raw or unpasteurized foods.
Raw foods such as fish (sushi) and cheese as well as unpasteurized cheese or juices may contain parasites or unwanted bacteria.
Pregnancy diet eating strategies
Pair fiber-rich carbohydrates with fat and protein.
Fat is the macronutrient that balances blood sugar so adding at least 1 tablespoon of fat to ALL meals is essential. In particular, omega 3 fats are shown to reduce incidences of gestational diabetes. Some favorite healthy fats include: avocado, avocado oil, olives, olive oil, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, wild salmon, coconut oil and coconut butter.
Don’t let your blood sugar drop.
Eat three meals a day with fat, fiber, and protein and two to three snacks in between meals. Always keep snacks on hand—nuts and Black Sesame Seed YES bars were my go-tos and easy to keep in your purse. When looking for a high quality protein bar, aim for a bar with whole food ingredients (avoid chemical ingredients and mystery natural flavors) that contain fat, fiber, and protein. Avoid bars that contain processed oils like sunflower, canola or palm oil. Stick to bars sweetened with natural sugars such as dates, maple syrup and coconut sugar.
Incorporate apple cider vinegar before meals.
Each time you eat, glucose increases and insulin rises. Studies have shown that drinking apple cider vinegar before meals reduces your glucose response. If you’re concerned about blood sugar, this strategy may help: Add 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to 1 glass of water before meals.
Supplements to take during pregnancy
A prenatal supplement, like Parsley’s Perfect Prenatal, is important for obtaining all of the nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy. At Parsley Health, our doctors recommend starting a prenatal in advance of getting pregnant so you can start to build up on these essential nutrients. Studies have shown that certain nutrients in prenatal vitamins help prevent unwanted defects. For example taking folic acid supports in the prevention of neural tube defects in baby. Research also shows that taking a prenatal vitamin supports healthy birth weight in newborns.
Studies have shown that women with low vitamin D levels are at a much greater risk for developing gestational diabetes, so it’s important to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. If you are low, you can take a Vitamin D supplement of around 5000 IU’s/daily.
Need some extra inspiration? Check out some of my go-to meals during pregnancy.