10 Diet Tips for Pregnant Women

You'll want to select from a wide variety of food and food groups while pregnant. See more parenting pictures.
You'll want to select from a wide variety of food and food groups while pregnant. See more parenting pictures.
Photodisc/B2M Productions/Getty Images

Ask almost any pregnant woman about eating for two, and she'll probably tell you this: It's not quite as easy (or as much fun) as it seems. Nausea and vomiting can make it hard enough to eat for one, let alone two; pregnancy restrictions can make consumption a somewhat complicated prospect (which tuna is the safe tuna again?); and while eating extra might seem nice, it definitely doesn't mean eating extra Ho-Hos and cookie dough.

Actually, cookie dough is out completely. See No. 8.


Almost all women gain weight when they're pregnant. They're supposed to. A pregnant woman has greater energy requirements and has to eat enough to provide all the nutrition both she and her growing child need. Most practitioners recommend 300 extra calories per day starting out (more in the last trimester) and an average 25 to 35 pounds (11 to 15 kilograms) of weight gain over the entire pregnancy. The source of those additional 300 calories matters. Pregnancy nutritional requirements are pretty specific and relate to the needs of both a pregnant body and a new, developing one.

Some of the dos and don'ts of a pregnancy diet are a sure thing, others are educated guesses, and some are controversial. One thing nearly all pregnant women and their doctors can agree on, though, is that erring on the side of caution is the way to go. In this article, we'll look at some areas of a diet that require high caution, some foods that are essential for a growing baby, and some nutritional additions that may help with some of pregnancy's rougher side effects.

We'll begin with one of the most obvious and crucial pregnancy-diet tips. This one got a pregnant woman kicked out of a pub in England.

10. Don't: Alcohol

No one knows if there's an amount of alcohol that's perfectly safe.
No one knows if there's an amount of alcohol that's perfectly safe.
Photo courtesy of Oregon.gov

Some people say it's different in Europe -- specifically, that French women drink wine when they're pregnant and no one gives it a thought. But in fact, many European countries are coming around to the American point of view: that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy [source: Graff].

Alcohol is a drug, a depressant that slows the actions of the central nervous system. In the 1970s, American researchers coined the term fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, to describe the collection of birth defects that can result from prenatal alcohol consumption [source: Cooper]. FAS includes low birth weight, mental retardation, small stature and a spectrum of learning disabilities and emotional problems.


Is two drinks a week OK? One drink a day? The fact is, no one knows if there's an amount of alcohol that's perfectly safe and, if there is, what that amount is. The only truly safe approach is to save up the wine to toast the baby's birthday.

Up next: another favorite drink, another no-no.

9. Don't: Excessive Caffeine

It's best to limit yourself to about two cups of caffeinated coffee per day.
It's best to limit yourself to about two cups of caffeinated coffee per day.
Photo courtesy of U.S. FDA

No one said pregnancy was easy -- no more wine with dinner, no more good night's sleep, no more seeing your feet. But no more morning coffee? Really?

A restriction on caffeine can make the most conscientious mom-to-be a little shaky. This pregnancy "don't" is less absolute than the previous one, though -- it's more like a "mostly don't."


Caffeine is a stimulant drug that has been linked to miscarriage and low birth weight [source: Bouchez]. It's also a diuretic, which causes dehydration, a condition pregnant women should avoid like the plague.

It's not entirely clear just how much caffeine it takes to trigger adverse effects. If possible, pregnant women should avoid it altogether. That's pretty hard, though, since caffeine isn't just in coffee -- it's also in tea, chocolate, soda, some protein bars and other common foods. Even decaf coffee has a little bit of it.

Short of abstinence, the best route is moderation: Many experts recommend limiting caffeine consumption to less than 300 milligrams a day, which is about two cups of regular coffee or two shots of espresso [source: Bouchez].

Up next: If you like a couple of over-easy eggs with that morning coffee, there's more bad news.

8. Don't: Raw Meat, Eggs and Dairy

Any time we eat a raw or undercooked animal product -- an over-easy egg; raw eggs in cookie dough or mousse; unpasteurized goat, feta or Roquefort cheese; beef carpaccio, and, of course, sushi -- we risk ingesting harmful bacteria that could make us sick. It's part of eating, and the chances of eating food contaminated with something like E.coli is pretty slim.

The risk changes, though, when pregnancy comes into the picture. For someone who loves, say, salmon nigiri, the slight risk of getting sick is worth it. For someone who loves salmon nigiri and is carrying a child, the risk changes, because if mom-to-be gets sick with something like E.coli, salmonella, listeriosis or Campylobacter jejuni poisoning, it could lead to pregnancy complications, like miscarriage, or a very sick newborn baby. It's also dangerous for a pregnant woman because her immune system is suppressed (that's why flu is a greater danger, too).


It's best to avoid raw and undercooked animal products, along with deli meats, which can also contain pathogens, for the entire pregnancy to reduce the risk of acquiring foodborne illness.

Up next: speaking of contaminated food.

7. Don't: High-mercury Fish

When it comes to seafood in a pregnancy diet, it's best to be selective.
When it comes to seafood in a pregnancy diet, it's best to be selective.
Photo courtesy of EHP.gov

What goes up as industrial pollution comes down as, among other things, methylmercury in bodies of water. When our seafood swims in that contaminated water, it turns into mercury in our food supply.

In adults, the relatively small amount of mercury found in fish isn't a big deal. Our bodies can get rid of it. But in a developing fetus, the mercury in a few weekly albacore-tuna sandwiches has the potential to damage the nervous system. But here's where it gets tricky, because avoiding all fish during pregnancy is a bad idea (see No. 6). When it comes to seafood in a pregnancy diet, it's all about selectivity.


The big predator fish typically contain the most mercury (they've been feeding on all the other, smaller mercury-contaminated fish, and they live longer). This includes tilefish, swordfish, King mackerel and shark [source: Bouchez]. It's best to avoid these fish completely.

Albacore tuna tends to be higher in mercury than canned "light tuna." If you can't live without albacore, limit consumption to 6 ounces per week (about one serving) [source: Bouchez].

For other fish, limit consumption to 12 ounces per week. Shrimp, crab, salmon, tilapia, light tuna, anchovies and catfish are good choices. This should keep the mercury level safe for a developing baby. See FDA: Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish for a complete list.

Since it's best to err on the side of caution, the obvious question is, why not eliminate fish from the pregnancy diet? Up next: why that would be a mistake.

6. Do: Omega-3s

Fish isn't just filled with toxins. It's also a good source of omega-3s.
Fish isn't just filled with toxins. It's also a good source of omega-3s.
Photo courtesy of NIH

Fish contain something essential to human health and development: omega-3 fatty acids. They contribute to, among other things, brain and heart health, and they're especially important to the developing brain and heart of a fetus. The human body cannot make omega-3s. People have to get them from outside sources, and one of the richest sources is fatty fish.

Coldwater seafood such as salmon, lake trout and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3s, including one of the most important ones for a growing fetus (and baby, for that matter), called DHA. Fish oil supplements containing DHA are a possibility during pregnancy, but they do have side effects for some people, like excessive burping or nausea, which pregnant women already may have trouble with.


Some nonfish sources of omega-3s include walnuts, eggs and flaxseed. They don't have nearly as much as fish, though. Two 4-ounce servings of low-mercury, coldwater fish per week should take care of the omega-3 requirement [source: AskDrSears].

Up next: good news for carb lovers.

5. Do: Whole Grains

Whole grains should be a part of anyone's diet.
Whole grains should be a part of anyone's diet.
Photo courtesy of KingCounty.gov

During first-trimester nausea (or whole-pregnancy nausea, for the unlucky ones), carbohydrates like pasta, bread and crackers can be lifesavers, calming a reeling stomach. Happily, they're also an essential part of a nutritious pregnancy diet.

Carbohydrates are excellent sources of energy and often fiber. But we're not talking white bread, cake and regular pasta here -- those are simple carbohydrates and aren't the most nutritious.


Pregnant women (and everyone else) should aim for complex carbohydrates, specifically whole grains -- six to 11 servings per day. That includes whole-grain cereal, barley, whole-wheat bread and pasta, sweet potatoes, oats and bran. These foods provide not only much-needed energy but also, in many cases, healthy dietary fiber. Such fiber has digestive benefits that can be of particular importance for pregnant women: Fiber can help ease constipation and reduce the risk of preeclampsia [source: Bouchez].

Some whole-grain cereals also contain folic acid, which is essential during pregnancy.

Up next: lots of options for lots of nutritional value.

4. Do: Fruits and Vegetables

As important as fruits and vegetables are to the nonpregnant person, they're even more so to the pregnant woman.

The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants provided by things like strawberries, spinach and sweet potatoes are a crucial part of any pregnancy diet. The options for getting the minimum five to six servings a day (combined) are endless. For vitamin C (oral health and bone growth), look to oranges, strawberries, broccoli or tomatoes.


For folic acid, a B vitamin required in high quantities (at least 0.4 milligrams a day) for blood and protein production and to reduce the risk of neural-tube defects like spina bifida, look to leafy greens, peas and dark yellow fruits and veggies (along with legumes, veal and fortified cereals) [sources: WebMD].

For vitamin A (eyesight, healthy skin and bones), sweet potatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes are excellent choices.

That's just the beginning of the variety of vitamins and minerals that should be incorporated into a pregnancy diet. For a complete list, look at KidsHealth: Eating During Pregnancy.

Up next: this staple of kids' diets should be introduced in womb.

3. Do: Calcium

Most people know that babies need milk. It turns out, so do fetuses and their hosts.

Calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones. That goes double (or triple) for developing teeth and bones. Plus, high-calcium foods like milk, cheese and yogurt (and sardines and spinach) can help with pregnancy problems like water retention and, in the case of yogurt, yeast infections [source: Bouchez].


The recommended daily pregnancy intake of calcium is about 1,000-1,300 milligrams, or at least four servings [source: WebMD]. Low-fat dairy is the ideal way to obtain this calcium, since full-fat dairy has quite a lot of fat, and pregnant women (like everybody else) should moderate fat intake.

On an interesting side note, women who are trying to get pregnant might want to stick with the full-fat versions -- consumption of low-fat dairy products has been linked to decreased fertility [source: MNT].

Up next: Eat your meat! (Or your soybeans!)

2. Do: Protein

Pregnant? Time to load up on protein like a bodybuilder.

You're building a body, after all, and protein is your source for the amino acids that build cells. It's also essential for blood formation. While nonpregnant women need about 50 grams of protein each day, pregnant women need 70 grams -- a significant increase that may take some effort to accomplish [source: BabyCenter].


The highest protein needs come in the second and third trimesters, when baby-body growth is matched only by mommy-body growth. For the necessary two to three servings per day, look to lean meats, fish and poultry; nuts (including peanut butter); low-fat, pasteurized dairy; and foods like eggs, soy and beans.

In your lean meats, you'll also find added bonuses like iron, vitamins B6 and B12, and, if you go for fish protein, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Up next: tying it all together.

1. Do: Water

Drink water. It's probably the most essential pregnancy diet advice you'll get.
Drink water. It's probably the most essential pregnancy diet advice you'll get.
Photo courtesy SC DHEC

The first rule of pregnancy is: Drink water. The second rule of pregnancy is: Drink water. The third rule of pregnancy is: Drink water.

Actually, there are a lot of important rules -- no alcohol, cigarettes or skydiving, for instance -- but you get the point. Water is one of the most important things a pregnant woman can put in her body. Water carries all of the nutrients she consumes to the cells, where they are absorbed into the body. In effect, without water, none of the other musts on this list will do much good.

Also, since dehydration can trigger early labor, water helps a pregnancy get to term.

Most experts recommend at least 64 ounces of water per day, or about eight glasses or 2 liters. More than that is even better. And for each cup of coffee (with caffeine) or hour of light exercise, add 8 ounces of water [source: BabyCenter].

It's tough to keep track of exactly how much you're consuming when you have baby on the brain. So with one of those many glasses of water you'll be drinking, be sure to take a prenatal vitamin, too. It'll assure you're getting everything you need, just in case your healthy eating leaves you a little short.

For more information on pregnancy nutrition and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bouchez, Colette. Pregnancy: Eating Healthy for 2. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/baby/guide/pregnancy-eating-healthy
  • Eating During Pregnancy. KidsHealth. http://kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition_fit/nutrition/eating_pregnancy.html
  • Eating Right When Pregnant. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/baby/guide/eating-right-when-pregnant
  • Pregnancy nutrition: Healthy eating for you and your baby. MayoClinic. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pregnancy-nutrition/PR00108 Seven
  • Principles of Eating Well During Pregnancy. BabyCenter.http://www.babycenter.com/0_seven-principles-of-eating-well-during-pregnancy_3561.bc
  • “Reduced Fertility In Women Linked To Low Fat Dairy Food.” Medical News Today. March 1, 2007. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/64192.php