What to eat when you’re pregnant to give your baby the best start

What to eat when you’re pregnant to give your baby the best start

Congratulations! You’re pregnant, and at some point in the next year, you’re hoping to welcome another bundle of joy into the world.

Whether you’re pregnant for the first time, second time, or you already have an established family, you know that what you eat, drink and otherwise consume during each trimester of your pregnancy can and will have an effect on how your fetus develops and grows.

You’re eating for two now (or possibly for more), and what’s good for your baby is naturally going to take priority over what you normally like to eat and drink.

Before we get on the right foods to help your baby grow, let’s start with what you should cut from your diet immediately in order to allow your little one the biggest head start, so put down that glass of Chardonnay and read on.

What you should cut out of your diet when pregnant

Medicine has come on a long way in the last hundred years, and doctors and scientists have reached a broad consensus over food, drink, and other items which is bad for a baby’s development. While there is some wiggle room over a couple of these items, you should try and avoid them if at all possible.

Cigarettes

This should go without saying. While there was a time when cigarette companies quoted doctors as claiming cigarettes were a remedy for everything from indigestion to dental health, as far as we’re aware cigarettes have never been marketed as an aid to either getting pregnant or having a healthy baby. Sorry, that ‘Smoking for two’ advertising campaign was made up especially for a ‘Bad Ads’ Photoshop competition (it won).

Smoking when pregnant harms your baby and there is now no argument about it. Carbon monoxide from the tobacco smoke keeps the developing fetus from getting enough oxygen, leading to low birth weight, an increased risk of miscarriage, and damage to the lungs and brain. The exact effect that the 93 known harmful cigarette will have on your baby isn’t exactly understood, but it’s a risk not worth taking.

Alcohol

Yes we get it – alcohol may have played a a part in the conception of your baby (at least as part of a romantic date night beforehand), but now you’re actually pregnant, you’re going to want to give up wine, beer, and spirits for the foreseeable future. OK, want probably isn’t the right word, but consuming alcohol during pregnancy can certainly damage your little one’s health outcomes when he or she is born.

Hundreds of research studies have been carried out since the 1970s to measure the effect of alcohol on pregnancy. The results have varied wildly with some very few studies claiming that alcohol has a protective effect on the fetus, while others claim it increases the risk of miscarriage by almost 400%.

A meta-analysis (a study of studies) of the association between alcohol use and miscarriage carried out in 2015 by Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center found that the risk of miscarriage increased by 20% with alcohol exposure. This is probably the most valid meta-study done to date.

In addition to the risk of miscarriage, alcohol use in pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. Symptoms include poor growth, distinct facial features characteristic of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as learning and behavioral problems.

Shellfish (and some other fish)

As your baby grows, he or she can be disproportionately affected by poisons of any type. This includes heavy metals such as mercury, which tend to be found in shellfish including clams, mussels, and oysters, and certain other types of fish thanks to a process called bioaccumulation. You should avoid all shellfish when pregnant and also try to steer clear of shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish,  tuna, and marlin. Basically, big fish which eat other fish.

The other big danger with shellfish such as oysters, lobster, crabs, and clams is the increased risk of of diarrhoetic shellfish poisoning, paralytic shellfish poisoning, and neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. There is also an increased risk of poisoning from algal toxins and viruses such as norovirus and E. Coli. None of these outcomes is good for you, and they are certainly not good for your pregnancy.

Sorry. Mussels, oysters and clams may be delicious, but if you’re pregnant this type of food is off the menu.

Cut out the caffeine – or at least reduce how much you drink

This one hits perhaps the hardest. Caffeine isn’t good for your developing baby – at least in the amounts you’re probably used to. The Mayo clinic recommends no more than 200mg of caffeine per day – however research conducted as far back as 2000 suggests that any more than 100mg per day can have negative consequences – especially in the first trimester. The more caffeine you ingest, the higher the risk.

What you should add to your diet when pregnant

Now that the nasty stuff is out of the way, and you’ve made a mental note to avoid smoking, drinking, and shellfish during your pregnancy, it’s time to think about what you should be eating, why you need to eat it and what beneficial effects it will have on your baby. A developing baby’s nutritional needs will vary as it develops, and some of these needs will be passed onto the mother resulting in cravings for particular types of foods which are rich in one or more types of nutrients. Here’s what you should be eating as your pregnancy progresses:

What you should eat in the first trimester (weeks 1 – 12)

For many women, the first giveaway sign they might be pregnant is nausea, unexplained vomiting, fatigue, and an aversion to certain foods. Yes, it’s morning sickness (even though the symptoms can strike at any time of the day or night).

Symptoms may or may not alleviate as time goes on (appetite usually returns during the second trimester), and it’s understandable that eating may be the absolute last thing on your mind as you attempt to stop your hair from dipping into the toilet bowl.

The nausea is mainly due to to massive quantities of progesterone flooding your system. Just try to ignore it and keep t as balance a diet as possible. Easier said than done, we know.

You should be eating

Meat

Iron and protein are essential building blocks, and meat is the best and easiest to access source of both of these. Good choices include lean chicken breast,  turkey, and steaks. While you’re probably used to making sure your poultry is thoroughly cooked, it is now essential to ensure your typical red meat is cooked all the way through, too. Nothing less than medium will do.

Fish

Fish is a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends women consume between eight and 12 ounces of seafood every week. Just remember to avoid shellfish and other types of fish we mentioned earlier. The best fish to eat during the first trimester (and later on) are: salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, freshwater trout, and pacific mackerel.

Nuts and seeds

It’s all about the Omega-3 in the first weeks of pregnancy. Other great sources include sunflower seeds, flaxseed, walnuts,  and soybeans.

Bananas.

Bananas are a famous source of Potassium, which is vital for the health and comfort of both mother and child. It can help with cramping, and fluid retention and bloating. Other good sources include coconut water, spinach, and beans.

Fresh vegetables

Folic acid (folate) is needed for the division of cells, and when you think about it, that’s what a baby is – two cells fusing into one cell which then divides and divides again until you have a whole human being’s worth of cells Folic acid is important!

Unfortunately, folic acid is sensitive to heat. You can eat as much spinach as you want, but if you overcook it, your developing baby won’t feel the benefits. Ideally, you will eat your veg fresh and raw. However is you can’t stand the thought of raw spinach or kidney beans, steam them and retain the water as folate is water soluble. The best vegetable for folic acid are dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Other good options include kidney beans, citrus fruit and legumes.

 

In the Second Trimester (week 13 to week 25), your diet should should…

In the second trimester, things get a little bit easier – in that if you’ve been having trouble keeping food down or have lost your appetite altogether, your dietary habits should start to swing back towards normal. That’s a big should however, and there are no guarantees. The reason for this is that the initial surge of hormones have subsided, and while it’s not easy sailing from now on,, it probably won’t feel like you’re seasick in the middle of a typhoon.

Nutrition in the second trimester is just as critical as in the first and your diet will reflect that. You should continue to avoid shellfish and upper food chain fish (which contain mercury). We don’t need to tell you that tobacco and alcohol remain very firmly off the table, regardless of how much you’re craving a glass of Chardonnay and a Marlboro.

You should also continue to keep your diet as balanced as possible with lean meat, plenty of green vegetables, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates. As always, oily fish such as salmon is essential, along with Omega-3 rich seeds and nuts.

You may have completely avoided weight gain during the first trimester, but there’s no getting away from it now. Your baby is putting on a lot of weight, fast, and you’re going to need to up your calorific intake to keep up with her! Don’t go overboard though.

The reason you and your baby are putting on weight so fast is because the fetus’s bones are developing and becoming hard, and she or he is piling on muscle tissue.

You’re going to need to up your lean meat intake to provide the protein, and make sure you’re eating a ton of calcium to help build those strong bones. Again, spinach is a great option for calcium, but don’t forget pasteurized milk and cheeses.

You may find yourself bunged up with constipation during the second trimester. Try some delicious prunes.

Diet and nutrition in the third trimester (week 26 onward)

You’re nearly there now. Not long left. When was the last time you saw your toes?

You thought you were eating a lot during the second trimester, but your dietary needs will increase even more during the third trimester. You need to keep it up, but not blow your extra calorie budget on junk food – keep it healthy with lots of greens, meat, fish, and foods which contain plenty of Omega 3 and folate.

You and the baby should be gearing up for him or her to make their appearance in the world. By week 28 your baby will already have eyelashes, wrinkly skin, and be capable of crying, grimacing and making faces inside the womb.  You will want to increase your consumption of everything. Pay particular attention to oily fish, nuts, and greens.

 

In conclusion.

You need a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy in every trimester. The foods we’ve recommended here are god for a human body and development even if you’re not pregnant, but especially so if you’re eating for two.

It may be that you struggle to hold down food or are repelled by foods which you know contain nutrients which are good for you and your baby. If you feel like you’re missing out on some essentials, consider taking nutritional supplements formulated especially for pregnancy. You can find our complete guide here.

Frequently asked questions

Can I drink non-alcoholic wine when I’m pregnant?

Yes! You absolutely can. Non-alcoholic wine can help you to feel like you’re able to fit in in social situations, helping to reduce stress for you and your baby.

How can I cure my morning sickness

Sadly, there is no universally accepted treatment that will work for morning sickness. Every pregnancy is different and what works for one expectant mother may not work for another.

This doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. As a general guideline, you should avoid foods and smells which make you feel sick: rest as much as you can as tiredness can make nausea and sickness worse; drink plenty of fluids. A lot of people will tell you how their morning sickness was cured or alleviated. Give their solutions a try only after checking with your doctor.

 

 

 

August Jones

Hi. My name's August Jones - I'm a fantastic amateur chef and a self-proclaimed food expert. I spend most of my life in kitchens cooking and preparing wholesome meals for anywhere between two and 20 people. If you need a banquet or an intimate meal, I can help you out! I plan on using the pages at obeyyourhunger.com to share my decades of culinary expertise, and excellence