Food During Pregnancy
Now you are pregnant you need to make sure that your diet will provide enough energy and nutrients for both you and the baby.
What not to eat
The Government Food Standards Agency advises that certain foods should be avoided during pregnancy as they could harm the baby or make you ill:
- Some types of cheese
Avoid mold-ripened cheeses such as Camembert and Brie and similar blue-veined varieties, like Stilton or Danish blue, because of the risk of Listeria infection.
- Raw or partially cooked eggs
- Raw or undercooked meat
- Liver products and supplements containing vitamin A
You need some vitamin A, but having too much means that levels could build up and may harm your unborn baby. Ask your GP or midwife if you want more information.
- Avoid eating shark, marlin and swordfish and limit tuna to two steaks or four cans (each of 140g drained weight) per week
- Undercooked ready meals
- Raw shellfish
- Unwashed fruit, vegetables and salads
- Unpasteurised milk or milk products
The Health Department recommendation is to stop drinking alcohol altogether whilst pregnant or trying for a baby. The Foods Standard Agency say that if you are going to drink then have no more than 1 or 2 units of alcohol, once or twice a week and don’t get drunk!
A unit is half a pint of standard strength beer, lager or cider, or a pub measure of spirit. A glass of wine is about 2 units and alcopops are about 1.5 units.
You should limit the amount of caffeine you have each day, but you don't have to cut it out completely. Caffeine occurs naturally in a range of foods, such as coffee, tea and chocolate, and it's also added to some soft drinks and 'energy' drinks.
It's important not to have more than 300mg a day. This is because high levels of caffeine can result in babies having a low birth weight, or even miscarriage.
Each of these contains roughly 300mg of caffeine:
- 3 mugs of instant coffee (100mg each)
- 4 cups of instant coffee (75mg each)
- 3 cups of brewed coffee (100mg each)
- 6 cups of tea (50mg each)
- 8 cans of cola (up to 40mg each)
- 4 cans of 'energy' drink (up to 80mg each)
- 8 (50g) bars of plain chocolate (up to 50mg each). Caffeine in milk chocolate is about half that of plain chocolate
Peanuts and foods containing peanut products
You may wish to avoid peanuts or peanut products if you or your baby’s father or any previous children have a history of hayfever, asthma, eczema or other allergies when you’re pregnant and breastfeeding.
It is unclear at the moment if there any benefits to avoiding peanuts in pregnancy if you do not have a family history of nut allergy, and it has even been suggested that this could increase the chances of sensitizing the baby to nuts.
What is a balanced diet?
Although this might be a difficult time for you as you might be feeling very tired and nauseous or suffering from morning sickness it is important to try to eat a variety of foods including:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables. Aim for at least five portions of a variety each day, approximately a third of your daily food intake.
- Plenty of starchy foods such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes for energy - try to choose wholegrain options where possible. Approximately a third of your daily food intake should comprise of this food group.
- Foods rich in protein such as lean meat and chicken, fish (aim for at least two servings of fish a week, including one of oily fish), eggs and pulses (such as beans and lentils). These foods are also good sources of iron. A sixth of your daily food intake should consist of protein rich food.
- Plenty of fibre. This helps prevent constipation, a common problem in pregnancy and is found in wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, pulses and fruit and vegetables. Drinking at least 8 glasses of fluid per day will also help to prevent constipation.
- Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, which contain calcium.
- A very small amount of foods high in sugar and fat such as cakes and biscuits should be consumed to help you to avoid gaining too much weight during pregnancy (see the section on weight gain).
Healthy snack options include:
- Sandwiches or pitta bread filled with grated cheese, lean ham, tuna, salmon or sardines and salad
- Salad and vegetables (washed thoroughly)
- Low-fat yoghurt and fromage frais
- Hummus and bread or vegetable sticks
- Ready-to-eat apricots, figs or prunes
- Vegetable and bean soups
- Unsweetened breakfast cereals or porridge and milk
- Milky drinks or unsweetened fruit juices
- Fresh fruit
- Baked beans on toast or baked potato
You should take a daily 400 microgram (mcg) folic acid supplement from the time you stop using contraception until the 12th week of pregnancy.
You should also eat foods containing folate - the natural form of folic acid - such as green vegetables and brown rice, fortified bread and breakfast cereals.
Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. If you would like to take your folic acid in a supplement that contains other vitamins, make sure it contains 400mcg folic acid and doesn't contain vitamin A.
If you have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect, ask your GP for advice.
Pregnant women can become deficient in iron, so make sure you have plenty of iron-rich foods. Try to have some food or drink containing vitamin C, such as fruit or vegetables or a glass of fruit juice, with any iron-rich meals to help your body absorb iron. Try not to drink coffee and especially tea with your meal as research has shown that tea can reduce iron absorption from a meal by 64%!
If the iron level in your blood becomes low, your GP or midwife will advise you to take iron supplements.
Good sources of iron include:
- red meat
- green vegetables
- fortified breakfast cereals
Although liver contains a lot of iron, you should avoid eating it while you're pregnant (see 'What to avoid').
You should take supplements containing 10mcg of vitamin D each day.
Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods but we get most of our vitamin D from summer sunlight - if you're out in the sun, remember to take care not to burn!
You should avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A. Fish liver oil also contains high levels of vitamin A. Having too much vitamin A may harm your unborn baby.
In summary take a folic acid supplement providing 400µg per day for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and 10mcg of vitamin D each day during pregnancy. A healthy balanced diet should provide all the other nutrients that most pregnant women need, but some may require supplements. If supplements are used, the best choice is a specially-prepared formula for pregnancy. Supplements containing vitamin A should be avoided.
Foods you don't need to avoid
It maybe helpful to see the list of foods below that you don’t need to avoid:
Shellfish, including prawns - as long as they are part of a hot meal and have been properly cooked
Live or bio yoghurt
Mayonnaise, ice cream, salad dressing - as long as they haven't been made using raw egg.
Honey - it's fine for pregnant women but honey isn't suitable for babies under a year old.
Many types of cheese including:
Hard cheese, such as Cheddar and Parmesan
Processed cheese, such as cheese spreads
All women are different and therefore gain different amounts of weight during pregnancy. Weight gain shouldn’t be more than 10-12 kilograms or 22-28 pounds over the whole of the pregnancy. Your health can be affected and your blood pressure raised if you gain too much weight but it is also important that you don’t try to diet whilst pregnant. Please talk to your GP or midwife if you have any concerns about your weight.
For up to the minute information go to the Food Standards Agency website at www.food.gov.uk.