Ten Essential Foods To Eat While Pregnant

Published July 13th, 2022 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by
Camille Freking
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

You know you need to eat a little more when pregnant, but what foods are most important and which are absolutely essential can be a mystery.

Your baby and your body have different needs, and we’ll cover what they are and how to meet them. 

We’ll also cover several foods that should be avoided during pregnancy due to a risk to your developing baby’s health. 

How Much Should I Eat? 

First things first: how many extra calories do you need when pregnant? A pregnant person in a healthy weight range with a healthy BMI can expect to gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy.

It’s important to understand that you’ll need an additional 300 calories daily to support your growing baby and body while pregnant. 

Being overweight or underweight at the start of your pregnancy can change these averages.

Talk to your healthcare provider about how much weight you need to gain during pregnancy and what your caloric goals should be. 

Your Dietary Needs During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, your needs for certain vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients increase.

Because you are not only supporting your body, but the healthy growth and development, your needs will be different than when you are not pregnant. 

As such, here are five nutrients you need more of when you’re pregnant.

  1. Protein. Protein is essential for your baby’s growth throughout pregnancy. You’ll need at least 71 grams of protein per day. 
  2. Vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals are essential to the cellular development of your baby, which is why your doctor has likely instructed you to take a prenatal vitamin. Prenatal vitamins can help ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals in one fell swoop. 
  3. Omega-3 (like DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, which means our bodies need them but can’t readily make them on their own. That means we need to get them from our diet or supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA, are essential for developing eye and brain tissue. Your doctor may suggest you take a DHA supplement during pregnancy. 
  4. Complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs help support healthy energy levels, can ease morning sickness and nausea symptoms, and can also help you avoid constipation.  
  5. Water. Your uterus is full of fluid, so you need more of it when you’re pregnant. Aim to drink between eight and 10 glasses of water daily. If you find yourself going to the restroom more often than usual, you’re probably doing it right. Your urine should be pale yellow to colorless, signifying you are properly hydrated. 

10 Essential Foods To Eat While Pregnant

You know what you need; here are the foods that can help you get it.

Focusing on these foods can help you ensure that you aren’t consuming empty calories, which can lead to excessive weight gain. 

1. Dairy

Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt have the highest source of dietary calcium. Because you’ll need additional calcium to support the formation of your baby’s bones (and to support strong bones in your own body), dairy is essential. 

If you’re lactose intolerant, it’s still important that you get the calcium you need during pregnancy. Different types of dairy, like Greek yogurt or probiotic yogurt, might be more digestible for you. 

2. Salmon

Remember omega-3 fatty acids? You can get a healthy dose of them by regularly consuming salmon during pregnancy. Eating raw fish, like sushi, isn't advisable during pregnancy, but you can enjoy salmon smoked or baked. 

Salmon contains the omega-3 fatty acids that help support your baby's healthy eye and brain development and support your own dietary needs for this fatty acid.

3. Dark, Green Leafy Vegetables 

If you already love to eat leafy greens, you’re on the right footing for a healthy pregnancy diet.

If you struggle to eat your veggies, now is the time to try them prepared in different ways because they are essential for a balanced diet during pregnancy. 

Not only do dark green vegetables (like broccoli, kale, and spinach) contain calcium, but they are a solid source of fiber and antioxidant vitamins like vitamin C and A. 

Research shows that decreased levels of antioxidants can be associated with a higher risk of preeclampsia, improper fetal growth, and adulthood diseases. In addition, the studies conclude that vegetable intake is associated with a reduced risk of low birth weight. 

4. Lean Meat

We know the cravings for steak might be strong, but you’re better off choosing leaner meat like chicken, turkey, and pork when pregnant.

These are good sources of protein without any saturated fat. If you choose red meat, choose lean cuts and eat your meat baked, seared, or broiled, not fried. 

5. Whole Grains

Complex carbohydrates, like whole-grain foods, are essential to a healthy pregnancy. Oats, quinoa, barley, and brown rice are packed with fiber to aid digestion. 

During pregnancy, progesterone levels increase, which causes your muscles to relax.

This relaxation is essential for allowing your uterus to expand to accommodate your growing baby, but it can also cause your intestinal muscles to relax, becoming sluggish and causing constipation.

Increasing your fiber intake is key for helping you avoid constipation (and hemorrhoids).

Today, there are numerous ways to avoid white bread, pasta, and white rice.

New options made from chickpeas can replace these products, help you up your fiber intake, and still enjoy the foods you love. 

6. Berries

These might just be a pregnancy superfood. Berries such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, contain antioxidants, healthy carbohydrates, and fiber.

They satisfy sweet tooth cravings and provide powerful vitamins for your body and baby. 

Try increasing your berry intake by adding them to your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie. 

7. Nuts and Seeds

Eating nuts and seeds while pregnant can help pack in extra protein, give your body a source of healthy fat, and promote the feeling of fullness.

They’re also loaded with fiber and vitamins. Walnuts, chia seeds, almonds, and flaxseed are all excellent options. 

Be sure to add nuts and seeds sparingly, as they contain many calories. One ounce of nuts or seeds is considered a serving, or roughly the amount you can fit in the palm of your hand. 

8. Eggs

Eggs are another all-in-one healthy food to consume during pregnancy and beyond.

Edible for virtually any meal of the day (as well as an excellent snacking option), eggs contain just 80 calories per serving and are packed with essential nutrients your body needs while building your baby. 

Rich in protein, healthy fat, and vitamins and minerals, eggs also contain an essential pregnancy nutrient called choline. Choline is essential for your baby’s brain and spinal development; each egg contains about 150 mg of choline. Current guidelines recommend 450mg of choline per day while pregnant. 

9. Sweet Potatoes

Not only are sweet potatoes a valuable source of fiber and beta carotene, but they also do double duty as dessert.

When you crave something sweet, a baked sweet potato with a sprinkle of cinnamon can satiate your cravings without packing on empty calories. 

Your body converts beta carotene into vitamin A in your body. Vitamin A helps with eye development and also helps support your baby’s immune system. 

10. Legumes

A source of fiber, protein, calcium, and iron, legumes are also a source of folate (also known as vitamin B9).

Folate is essential for ensuring the healthy development of your baby’s neural tube, which can help reduce the risk of congenital disabilities like spina bifida

Chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, and some nuts are all great options for increasing your intake of these fibrous foods during pregnancy. 

What Not To Eat During Pregnancy

When you are pregnant, some foods can be harmful to you and your baby.

Here, we give you eight foods to put away until your baby arrives.

1. Some Fish

While salmon is a great source of omega-3 and a healthy option during pregnancy, some larger fish have high mercury levels that aren’t safe during pregnancy. Avoid fish like:

  • Shark
  • Tilefish
  • Swordfish
  • Bigeye tuna
  • Marlin
  • King mackerel 

Additionally, some shellfish have higher levels of mercury. If you’re in question, always contact your doctor to make sure what you want to eat is safe. 

2. Undercooked Meat

Your immune system is compromised while pregnant, which means you are more likely to become ill from bacteria (like salmonella or listeria) on undercooked food. When preparing meat, make sure to cook it thoroughly. 

Even processed meat (like lunch meat or hot dogs) needs to be steamed or boiled to ensure they are safe to eat and free from bacteria. The same rule applies to eggs; never eat eggs with runny yolks while you are pregnant. 

3. Unpasteurized Dairy

Dairy products are essential to a healthy pregnancy diet but avoid unpasteurized milk, cheeses, or yogurts. This includes fresh goat milk, certain soft cheeses that might not be pasteurized (like brie and camembert), and certain hard cheeses (like feta). 

If buying at a grocery store, check labels to ensure you are buying pasteurized dairy products. 

4. Excess Caffeine

You don’t have to avoid caffeine entirely during pregnancy (thank goodness), but caffeine crosses the placenta and affects your baby. It is generally suggested to consume less than 200mg of caffeine per day during pregnancy, which equates to about two cups of coffee.

5. Alcohol

No amount of alcohol is considered safe during pregnancy.  Drinking during pregnancy could increase the risk of stillbirth, low birth weight, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Fetal alcohol syndrome has lasting effects like facial deformities and problems with cognitive function. 

6. Unwashed Fruits and Vegetables

The risk here, again,  is bacterial contamination. If you aren’t in the habit of pre-washing your fruits and vegetables before you eat them, now is the time to start.

Even if you plan to cook them thoroughly, you could contaminate kitchen utensils or risk getting bacteria on your hands during preparation. 

Before preparing, wash your fresh fruits and vegetables, taking care to wash them around the stem separation area, where bacteria is most common. 

7. Certain Herbs and Herbal Teas

Determining the exact amount of herbs in herbal supplements and teas can be challenging.

Additionally, there isn’t much research on whether or not certain herbs are safe for consumption during pregnancy. Before you consume it, talk to your healthcare provider to ensure it is safe. 

8. Junk Food

Pregnancy cravings can become intense.

However, junk food like prepackaged snack cakes, cookies, and fast food can pack massive amounts of unnecessary calories, tons of sodium, and unhealthy trans fats which aren’t good for your body or your baby’s. 

When you feel a craving, try drinking a glass of water before you grab a snack. Then, opt for a healthy snack option that has healthy fat and fiber, both of which can help keep you full and satisfied. 

Healthy Eating, Pregnancy and Beyond

Your baby depends on what you eat to develop properly. Eating enough and eating a healthy diet is essential to their health and development.

While you are “eating for two,” remember, you only need about 300 additional calories per day to support your baby’s development. 

Eating a rainbow of vegetables, choosing lean meats, and increasing your intake of whole grains and cereals can help support your efforts to eat well during pregnancy and help you avoid unnecessary weight gain while pregnant. 

References, Studies and Sources:

Eating right during pregnancy | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia 

Pregnancy diet: Focus on these essential nutrients | Mayo Clinic 

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy | PMC 

The Importance of Antioxidant Micronutrients in Pregnancy | PMC 

Choline - Health Professional Fact Sheet | ODS.NIH.gov 

Folic Acid | CDC 

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy | CDC