What are the Special Nutrition and Diet Needs for a Pregnant Woman?


The food you eat every day, even before you are pregnant, is important for your health but once you become pregnant it is even more important to eat in a healthy fashion.

When you read that you should eat well during pregnancy it does not mean that you should simply increase how much you eat. It means you need to eat the right kinds of food, the right kinds and amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates, the right vitamins and minerals, and plenty of plain water.

When you are pregnant is not the time to go on a weight-loss diet or a time to restrict your food intake. Low-calorie diets can break down the stored fat you and your baby need and it can lead to the production of substances in your body which can be harmful to your baby.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), a pregnant woman generally should eat a total of 2,500 to about 2,700 calories every day, only 300 calories a day more than the woman did before she was pregnant.

More important than how much you eat is what you eat. To get enough nutrients, you should take a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin.

What Foods Should a Pregnant Woman Eat and Not Eat?

Folic acid, a B vitamin, can be especially important as it helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Folic acid is so important that most health care providers suggest a pregnant woman take folic acid supplements before and throughout pregnancy. You also can get folic acid from fortified breakfast cereals, dried beans, black beans, lentils, leafy green vegetables, peanuts, broccoli, asparagus, and orange juice. However, since it is very hard to get enough folic acid through food alone, the March of Dimes encourages women to take a multivitamin containing folic acid every day.

Calcium is another important nutrient since your baby's calcium demands are high. Dairy products including milk, yogurt, or cheese are very good sources of calcium. Eating green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods like orange juice and breakfast cereal can also provide calcium. The prenatal vitamin your health care provider suggests will probably contain extra calcium and folic acid to help you meet the demands of the baby.

Iron is also important and a pregnant woman needs approximately twice the iron of a non-pregnant woman. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, as soon as possible, a pregnant women start taking an iron supplement (30 mg/day) or a multivitamin with iron. Natural sources of iron include lean red meat, fish, poultry, dried fruits, whole-grain breads, and iron-fortified cereals.

As mentioned above, don't forget to drink lots and lots of water. Water plays a key role in pregnancy. It carries the nutrients from the food you eat to your baby and it helps prevent constipation, hemorrhoids,  excessive swelling, urinary tract and bladder infections. It is suggested that a pregnant woman drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of water every day with an additional glass of water for each hour of activity that they may engage in.

Many women think they can get the water they need by drinking coffee, soft drinks, and tea. However, these contain caffeine and can actually reduce the amount of fluid in your body. So caffeinated drinks do not count towards the total amount of water you need every day. Juice can be an good source of water but juice has a lot of calories that can add unnecessary weight. Overall, there is no substitute for clean, plain, water.

Avoiding harmful foods during pregnancy is as important as eating healthy ones. Below are several "foods" you should avoid.

First, let's consider alcohol. There is no safe time during pregnancy for you to drink alcohol. There is also no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. When you drink, your baby drinks. Alcohol can slow down the baby's growth, effect the baby's brain, and cause birth defects. For more information on the effects of alcohol please visit alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Caffeine consumption during pregnancy is more controversial. Caffeine is a stimulant found in many sodas, coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, and some over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Large quantities of caffeine can cause irritability, nervousness, insomnia and low birth-weight babies. As mentioned earlier, caffeine is also a diuretic and can actually deplete your baby of needed water. Many health care providers believe that one or two 6- to 8-ounce cups per day of coffee, tea, or soda with caffeine will not harm your baby, while other studies suggest that modest caffeine intake of less than two average cups of coffee per day presents a slight risk to the embryo or fetus. Overall, it is probably best to avoid caffeine if you can.

During pregnancy it is important to avoid food-borne illnesses which can be found in the following foods. You should check with your health care provider but may want to avoid:

  • soft, non-pasteurized cheeses (often advertised as "fresh") such as feta, goat, brie, camembert, and blue cheese
  • non-pasteurized milk, juices, and apple cider
  • raw eggs or foods containing raw eggs, including mousse and tiramisu
  • raw or undercooked meats, fish, or shellfish
  • processed meats such as hot dogs and deli meats (these should be well-cooked)
  • fish that are high in mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tile fish. What about Eating Herbs during Pregnancy?Natural herbs are being used by an ever increasing number women. During pregnancy, the herbs you use need to be carefully evaluated. You should discuss with your health car provider the herbs you want to use since many have been shown to be very helpful herbs while other herbs can be a risk for your baby. The herbs that are considered safe to use during pregnancy are often food or tonic herbs. The following herbs have been rated likely safe or possibly safe for use during pregnancy:
    • Red Raspberry Leaf is believed by many to help tone the uterus, increase milk production, decrease nausea, and ease labor pains.
    • Peppermint Leaf may help in relieving nausea/ morning sickness and flatulence.
    • Lemon Balm can helps relieve irritability, insomnia, and anxiety.
    • Ginger root is used to help relieve nausea and vomiting.
    • Slippery Elm Bark has been used to relieve nausea, heartburn and vaginal irritations.
    • Oats & Oat Straw may help restlessness and irritated skin.The following herbs, when used orally, are considered by many to unsafe or possibly unsafe during pregnancy:
    • Saw Palmetto
    • Goldenseal
    • Dong Quai
    • Ephedra
    • Yohimbe
    • Passion Flower
    • Black Cohos
    • Blue Cohosh
    • Roman Chamomile
    • Pennyroyal
  • For additional information please visit the page Dangerous Herbs and Vitamins During Pregnancy. How Can I Get Food and Nutritional Assistance?For those women who cannot afford healthy foods, there is help available. The WIC, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides low- Income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age 5 with nutritious foods, nutrition counseling, and referrals to health and other social services to participants at no charge.For additional resources for free or reduced cost food and vitamins, please visit the page Pregnancy Support Groups/Resources. Where Can I Find Additional Sources of Information?The websites What to Eat While Pregnant and will help answer some of your concerns about nutrition and diet during pregnancy. Other helpful website information on eating, nutrition and diet include Eating and Nutrition During Pregnancy and staying healthy during pregnancy. For additional information about your pregnancy and nutrition, please visit the links Weight and exercise and Nutrition Help and the website Pregnancy And Children and Things That May Surprise You About Pregnancy. Also visit the websites listed below:
    Eating During Pregnancy
    March of Dimes: Food Safety
    March of Dimes on Folic Acid
    March of Dimes on Healthy Eating
    March of dimes: Choosing a multivitamin 
    March of Dimes: Exercise during pregnancy
    Webmd: pregnancy and exercise