Pregnancy & Diet

When pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, ideally you should:

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet.
  • Include foods rich in calcium, folate, and iron.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks, which can be harmful to the pregnancy.
  • Watch your weight gain and aim to lose weight before becoming pregnant if you are obese.
  • Avoid Alcohol.
  • Take folic acid supplements.

A healthy diet for pregnancy is much the same as for everyone.

Eat plenty of starch-based foods (complex carbohydrates)

The bulk of most meals should be starch-based foods (such as bread, cereals, potatoes, rice and pasta), together with fruit and vegetables. Some people wrongly think that starch-based foods are ‘fattening’. In fact they contain about half the calories than the same weight of fat.

Eat at least five portions a of variety of fruit and vegetables each day

One portion is: One large fruit such as an apple, pear, banana, etc, or two smaller fruits such as plums, satsumas etc OR one cup of small fruits such as grapes OR two large tablespoons of fruit salad or one tablespoon of dried fruit OR one glass of fresh fruit juice (150ml) OR a normal portion of any vegetable OR one dessert bowl of salad.

Eat protein foods in moderation

Meat, fish, pulses, chicken and similar foods are high in protein.  You need some protein to keep healthy, but most people eat more protein than is needed.

Don’t eat too much fat

For example: try not to fry much food.  It is better to grill, bake, poach, barbecue or boil food. If you do fry, use unsaturated oil such as corn, sunflower or olive oil.  Drain off the oil before eating.  Choose lean cuts of meat.  Use low fat spreads.  Have low fat milk, cheeses, yoghurts and other dairy products rather than full fat varieties.

Don’t have too many surgery foods and drinks

These are high in calories and too much may cause weight gain.

Try not to eat too much salt

Use small amounts of salt with cooking, and don’t add more salt at the table.

Include foods with plenty of iron, calcium and folic acid

A growing baby needs these nutrients right from the start of pregnancy.

Iron is mainly in red meat, pulses, dried fruit, bread, green vegetables and fortified cereals.

Calcium is found mainly in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. (Low fat milk, cheeses and yoghurts usually contain just as much calcium as the full fat varieties.

Folic acid is mainly in green vegetables, brown rice, fortified bread and breakfast cereals.

Don’t eat anything with a lot of vitamin A

You need a small amount of vitamin A to keep healthy.  However, large amounts can harm an unborn baby. So avoid:

  • Liver and liver products such as liver pate and cod liver oil supplements.
  • Vitamin tablets or supplements, which contain vitamin A.

Don’t eat foods, which may have high levels of listeria

Listeria is a bacterium (germ), which does not usually cause problems in people who are not pregnant.  However, pregnant women are more likely to become infected with listeria and it sometimes causes miscarriage, stillbirth, or infections in the baby after birth.  Foods which are most at risk of carrying listeria are:

  • Undercooked meats and eggs.  For example, this may occur in some precooked meats and pre-prepared meals.  Make sure all meat foods are cooked until piping hot.  Eggs should be cooked until both the white and yolk are solid.
  • Soft cheeses such as brie. (Hard Cheeses and processed cottage cheese are safe).
  • Pates.
  • Shellfish and raw fish.
  • Unpasteurised milk. Note: Goats milk is often unpasteurised and goat milk products such as cheeses are often made from unpasteurised milk.

Don’t eat Fish which may contain a lot of Mercury

A high level of mercury can damage the developing nervous system of an unborn baby. So:

  • Do not eat shark, merlin or swordfish.
  • Limit the amount of tuna you eat. You should eat no more than two medium sized cans (drained weight = 140gm per can) or one fresh tuna steak per week. (This would be about six tuna sandwiches, or three tuna salads per week).

Don’t drink a lot of Caffeine

You should limit the amount of caffeine to no more than 300mg per day. Having a lot of caffeine increases the risk of miscarriage. The main sources of caffeine are coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola. Caffeine is also added to some energy drinks and to some cough and cold remedies. As a rough guide:

  • One cup of brewed coffee has about 100mg of caffeine.
  • One cup of instant coffee has about 75 mg of caffeine.
  • One cup of tea has about 50mg of caffeine.
  • One 50g chocolate bar has about 50mg of caffeine.
  • One can of energy drink may contain up to 80mg of caffeine.
  • Check the label on medicines for quantities of caffeine.

So, you do not have to stop your favourite drinks, but you may need to limit their amount. For example you will reach the 300 mg limit for one day if you eat two bars of chocolate, drink two cups of tea, and have a cup of brewed coffee.

Consider if you eat Peanuts

If you have an atopic disease such as asthma, eczema, or hay fever, or if a close family member has one of these conditions, then you may wish to avoid eating peanuts when you are pregnant.  This may reduce the risk of your child developing peanut allergy in later life.  This advice about peanuts is precautionary and further research is needed to clarify this issue.

Watch your weight

When you are pregnant, don’t eat for two and overeat.  Too much weight gain will increase your risk of developing problems with the pregnancy, and extra weight is difficult to lose after the birth.  The best way to avoid weight gain is simply eat a healthy balanced diet.

If you are already obese or overweight, ideally you should try to lose some weight before becoming pregnant.  This is to reduce the risk of pregnancy complications, which are more common in obese women.

Avoid Alcohol

It is advisable to avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy.  If you find it difficult to stop drinking alcohol, then seek advice and help from your doctor or midwife.

Take Folic Acid Supplements

You should take folic acid tablets for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy even if you’re healthy and have a good diet. Folic acid is a vitamin, which occurs naturally in certain foods. However, you need a good supply of folic acid when you are pregnant. If you take folic acid tablets in early pregnancy you reduce the risk of having a baby born with a spinal cord problem such as spina bifida.  You can buy folic acid tablets from your pharmacy.

You should start taking folic acid tablets before becoming pregnant (from the time you plan to become pregnant) If the pregnancy is unplanned then start taking folic acid as soon as you know that you are pregnant.

For most women the dose is 400 micrograms (0.4mg) a day.

If your risk of having a child with a spinal cord problem is increased then the dose is higher (5mg a day- you need a prescription for this higher dose) that is, if:

  • You have had a previously affected pregnancy.
  • Your partner or a first degree relative has a spinal cord defect.
  • You have coeliac disease (as your intake of folate may be affected by this condition)
  • You are taking medication for epilepsy
  • You have sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia