Are you pregnant and looking for the perfect pregnancy diet? Wondering what to eat during pregnancy? Keep reading to learn the perfect pregnancy diet and doctor recommended amounts of food to eat when pregnant. After all, nourishment is even more important when you're caring for more than one human being. Dr. Darna is here to answer the most common nutrition questions about what and how much of each food group you should be consuming, the nutritional value of food versus pill vitamins, and the real story behind good fats and salt. Plus, you’ll learn 11 great low carb snacks to help you maintain a healthy pregnancy weight.
What TO Eat and What NOT to Eat when Pregnant
What is a good pregnancy diet?
There is no such thing as a “pregnancy diet,” but when pregnant you should be eating “real food.” Nutrient-dense foods are the best way of taking in nutrients (as the name suggests). Lily Nichols has an amazing book about pregnancy nutrition titled Real Food for Pregnancy and it can be found on Amazon.
We can promote the health of our babies by learning from historical cultures that had good eating habits. Some of these cultures include the Swiss (who still have one of the most stringent food regulations to this day), Eskimos, Malay tribes, Maori of New Zealand, Native Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, and Australian Aborigines. Other cultures exhibiting good eating habits are the South American countries, like Peru, where Dr. Darna’s family is from. The nutrition content in their domestically grown food far exceeds those of the imported foods. Due to this adequate nourishment, their children did not suffer health problems like tooth decay, narrow palate, crooked teeth, club foot, neural tube defects, poor immune health or psychological problems as cultures who ate foods of modern commerce like sugar and refined grains.
What should I be eating?
Real foods maximize nutrient density, meaning they contain more nutrients per item or amount that you eat. This includes fresh vegetables that are in-season and grown without pesticides, minimally processed foods, full fat dairy from grass-fed cows, and foods that don’t have a label. The way I like to think about this is: when you go to the grocery store you should be mostly shopping around the edges. The produce, dairy, meat and other minimally processed food tend to be on the perimeter of the store as opposed to the more processed foods which are in the middle aisles.
Before I start talking about what and how much you should be eating during your pregnancy, make sure you know the 5 foods you SHOULD NOT eat because they can be detrimental to the health of your baby. Listen to Pregnancy Pukeology Podcast Episode 5 Foods to Avoid during Pregnancy so you know which foods to avoid.
What is a good pregnancy meal plan?
Every pregnancy, every baby, every mother is unique, and thus, pregnancy nutrition will look different based on multiple factors. However, there are some general guidelines that can help ensure you are getting plenty of nutrition for both you and your baby.
The meal breakdown looks like a pie cut into fourths, where vegetables take up ½ , carbs are ¼, and protein and fats are the other ¼.
EXAMPLE: 2 cups vegetable with a fat source like butter or olive oil
Non-starchy vegetables, like carrots, spinach, kale and mushrooms, have little effect on blood sugar and are great sources of fiber. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, corn and peas, act more like carbs. So, for your vegetable portion, be sure to have non-starchy veggies. Fiber is especially helpful to prevent and relieve constipation by acting as fuel for your intestinal bacteria. This keeps your bathroom breaks regular and ensures your body is getting rid of the bad stuff and keeping the good stuff. Fiber also slows down the breakdown of carbohydrates, like sugar, helping prevent those spikes in blood sugar.
Vegetables are better absorbed when eaten with some fat. This is because vegetables often contain Vitamins A, D, E, and K which are fat-soluble vitamins. This means they need to be eaten with fat so they can be absorbed by your body. You may have been told that “fat is bad”, but that generalization is untrue. Too much of anything can be bad, and while there are some fats that are better than others, not all fats are bad. It is important to incorporate fat into your diet while pregnant because your baby’s brain is 60% fat. This is because your baby’s brain is developing and it’s making neurons, or brain cells. These neurons are coated in a substance called myelin which helps the nerve signals transmit faster. Since myelin is fat-based, your baby’s brain is hungry for fats and they are important!
EXAMPLE: 0.5 to 1 cup of starchy or carbohydrate rich foods
Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient, that significantly raises your blood sugar. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, diabetes or prediabetes currently affects 49-52% of adults in the US and it is rising at an alarming rate. A high carbohydrate diet during pregnancy is also linked to an increased chance of developing gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, gall bladder disease (gallstones), and babies having metabolic problems like heart disease later on in life.
However, that does NOT mean that all carbs are bad! If you stick to the more nutrient dense carbs, you can do your part in keeping your family healthy and even preventing the diabetes epidemic from spreading. It is best to eat carbs that are 100% whole grain/wheat. Great carbohydrate sources include starchy vegetables, legumes (like beans, lentils, split peas), fruits, milk, and yogurt too. Whole wheat pasta or bread and brown rice are also great sources of carbs. These carbs keep you fuller longer, as opposed to their more processed counterparts.
Protein & Fat:
EXAMPLE:3-4 oz of protein or ½ tofu, lentils, beans (for the vegetarian and vegans out there)
EXAMPLE: 1 Tbsp margarine or ¼ an avocado or 1 Tbsp nuts
Eggs are also a great protein source and the egg yolk is an excellent source of choline, a relative of B-vitamins. Low choline is a major risk factor of neural tube defects and about 94% of women do not get the 450mg of choline needed per day; so, eat the yolk! The yolks also contain Vitamin A, which is important for proper lung and liver development, and a healthy birth weight.
Omega-3 fats, such as DHA, is found in fatty fish, seafood, grass-fed meat, and pasture-raised eggs and are important in your baby’s brain and vision development. The fat found in meat, chicken skin, and full-fat dairy are excellent sources of fats. There is some evidence showing eating high-fat dairy improves fertility. However, switching to whole fat dairy products is only recommended temporarily. You can switch during the time you are trying to conceive and then switch back to low-fat or skim options after. Other great sources of fats include avocados and nuts for my vegetarian and vegan moms out there.
Proteins are the building blocks of human life. Proteins are basically long pearl necklaces, where each pearl is an amino acid. There are a total of 20 amino acids, nine of which you must get from your diet because your body cannot produce them. Some protein sources that contain these nine essential amino acids include: eggs, milk, cheese, soybeans and quinoa. Protein foods are filling, and help stabilize blood sugar which makes them an integral part of a pregnancy diet especially for women with gestational diabetes.
Protein is so critical to human development because pregnant women need double or triple what is normally needed, about 70-100g per day. Under 20 weeks, your protein requirements are 39% increased, and after 31 weeks it is 73% higher! Eat up those animals, organ meats, cheeses, fish, nut butter, bone broth, and more. Organ meats and bone broth are rich in folate, vitamin B12, and glycine which is essential for fetal formation of DNA, internal organs, connective tissue, bones, blood vessels, skin, and joints. Try sneaking liver into your soups because it is a complete source of all 3. And although every prenatal vitamin (as discussed in Episode 3 Why take Prenatal Vitamins) and many enriched foods contain folic acid. The needed 400mcg of folic acid needed per day prevents birth defects, specifically neural tube defects. Luckily pre-natal vitamins, legumes (beans and lentils) and enriched grains often contain folic acid.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that all pregnant women should drink about 100z of fluids a day. Now remember that the milk in your cereal and decaffeinated tea also counts towards your total. Your pee should be a pale yellow signifying you're well hydrated, and if you are curious about how your bladder changes during the 3 trimesters check out Episode 11 Frequent Urination in Pregnancy for all the answers.
Salt, sodium chloride, is the body’s electrolyte. It is primarily responsible for shifting water into and out of cells. Pregnant women are well known for cramping, because they are not getting enough of these two electrolytes and the electrolyte: potassium. Salt supports normal stomach acid levels by supplying chloride (it’s the chloride in hydrochloric acid). Good stomach acid pH is needed to absorb minerals and vitamin B12, for protein digestion, and to destroy any pathogenic bacteria. Now ladies with pre-eclampsia please reduce your salt intake, for everyone else add a little salt to your kale (it makes it taste WAY better).
It’s all about quality over quantity. Ladies you are NOT eating for two. It is suggested that after your first trimester you need about 300 extra calories per day, which is about an extra snack.
Snack Ideas for Pregnant Women
Here’s a list of some great snacks:
- Nuts: Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and sunflower seeds
- Beef jerky without MSG (a preservative found in a lot of Chinese foods for flavor but is linked to headaches and migraines. Check out NoMoMigraine.comfor natural relief for both.)
- Plain Greek yogurt and some berries
- Guacamole with celery and bell peppers
- Small salad with pine nuts and goat cheese
- Hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper
- Deviled egg
- Caprese Salad (tomatoes, basil, mozzarella cheese, and balsamic vinegar)
- Olives and dill pickles (who doesn’t like the two when pregnant)
- Kale chips
- Grilled chicken breast with pesto and parmesan
Need more meal examples or recipes?
Veggies, non-starchy, include artichoke, asparagus, bell pepper, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chayote squash, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, green leafy vegetables (which have high amounts of vitamin K1 needed for normal blood clotting, which lowers your risk of postpartum hemorrhage). Don’t hesitate to stock up on collards, dandelion, mustard, spinach, kale (which has 45 different types of antioxidants called flavonoids), turnip greens, spinach, watercress, bok choy, and arugula before going to the hospital to deliver. Tomato, green beans, leek, lettuce, mushroom, okra, onion, radish, summer squash, zucchini, and turnips are also great veggies to include in your diet. The following veggies have a higher amount of carbohydrates including beet, parsnips, snap peas, snow peas, and spaghetti squash.
Sources of good carbohydrates include whole grains like pasta, cereals, breads, legumes including beans, lentils, split peas, starchy vegetables potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, green peas, corn, and don’t forget to throw some salt and butter on them for your good fat and sodium chloride content. Milk, yogurt, butter, and heavy cream can be sources of carbs too because they contain lactose, which is a sugar.
The dairy products listed above also double as great sources of protein. But keep in mind that Greek yogurt has more protein than traditional yogurts. Other animal proteins should be pasture-raised because they have more vitamin B12 and Vitamin D since they are in the sun more. Beef, lamb, pork, bison, venison (deer), chicken, turkey, duck, sausage, bacon, organ meats, homemade bone broth, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, almond butter, beans, peas, and lentils are great sources of protein. Remember plant proteins have zero B12, which is a B vitamin that helps to increase natural energy production so if you’re tired in your first trimester try eating more meat. For any vegetarian or vegan moms I highly recommend taking a B12 vitamin supplement all the time, whether you are pregnant or not.
I left seafood like salmon and fatty fish for last. The problem with large fish is the mercury content. If you want to know exactly which fish you should not eat, listen to episode 5 Foods to avoid while pregnant. Small cold-water fish are especially beneficial for the brain-boosting Omega 3 fatty acids. This includes fish such as: salmon, herring, sardines, and fish eggs (roe). They also contain iodine, zinc, and selenium. Iodine necessity increases by 50% during pregnancy in order to maintain normal thyroid function in the mom and healthy brain development in the fetus. That being said, be sure you are using iodized salt. Most salt is iodized but be sure to check the label.
For more information regarding nutrition during pregnancy, see your doctor, OB, a dietician and/or check out Real Food for Pregnancy by Lily Nichols. Vegetarian mommies, there is even a whole chapter dedicated to you (Chapter 3). Thanks for reading and if you want to listen to this incredibly informative podcast by our own Dr. Darna click below!Listen to "Pregnancy Diet: What To Eat During Pregnancy In Pregnancy Pukeology Podcast Episode 16" on Spreaker.