Following a healthy lifestyle before, during and after pregnancy has lots of benefits for both you and your developing baby and is a wonderful investment in your baby’s future health.
- Eating a balanced diet with a wide variety of foods to provide the nourishment you both need
- Enjoying regular physical activity
- Gaining the right amount of weight for you
- Avoiding alcohol, smoking, drugs and other harmful substances
A healthy diet ensures you have a good store of nutrients to meet the demands of your developing baby, and keeps you healthy and well. Healthy eating during pregnancy may also protect your baby against disease in later life.To make sure you get all the vitamins and minerals that you and your baby need, you should aim for a diet that includes a range of healthy foods.
Breastfeeding gives your baby the best possible start in life. There are many benefits for both mothers and babies beyond the tailor-made nutrition breastmilk provides. There is lots of support available for breastfeeding and it’s a good idea to check out what you can access in your local area before your baby is born. Further information can be found on www.breastfeeding.ie.
Important things to focus on
Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
These are rich in vitamins and minerals which help baby to grow in a healthy way; they also include fibre to help your gut work well and vitamin C to help in iron absorption.
- Aim for at least 3 portions of vegetables and 2 portions of fruit every day.
- Include a large serving of vegetables or salad and/or some fruit at each meal and snack.
- Add vegetables to omelettes, stews and casseroles. Have extra salad on your sandwich or fresh vegetable soup as a side.
- Fruit makes a perfectly portioned snack between meals.
- Add fruit to your breakfast, e.g. chopped banana or berries with your cereal.
Wholegrain starchy foods for energy - bread, crackers, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals, potatoes, couscous, noodles
- Brown, wholegrain or wholemeal varieties contain fibre to keep your bowel habits healthy.
- Include these foods at every main meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) to give you and your baby the energy you both need.
- Aim to eat 6 portions of starchy carbohydrate food each day, or up to 8 if you are active.
- One portion is equal to: 1 slice of bread; 4 dessertspoons flake
- type breakfast cereal; 3 dessertspoons dry porridge oats or muesli; 2 wheat or oat cereal biscuits; 2 small scoops mashed potato or 2 small potatoes or 1 medium baked potato; ½ cup (3 dessertspoons) of cooked rice, pasta or noodles.
- Other choices like 1 pitta pocket, 1 tortilla wrap, 1 small bagel, 1 small scone and 1 small bread roll count as 2 portions.
Dairy products for healthy bones, muscles and blood pressure- milk, cheese & yogurt
These foods are rich in calcium which is needed to help control your blood pressure and for your baby’s bone development and muscle function.
- Aim for at least 3 portions per day, e.g. 125g pot of yogurt (plain or natural types are best); 300ml or 1/3 pint of milk; 1 matchbox size of cheese
- If you are under 18 or you are carrying twins or more, aim for at least 5 portions daily.
- If you are overweight, choose low-fat varieties – these contain the same amount of calcium as full-fat varieties.
- Fortified milk is also a good choice as it contains extra calcium, folic acid, iodine and vitamin D – all important nutrients for pregnancy.
- If you do not like dairy foods, choose dairy alternatives that have calcium and vitamin B12, added e.g. fortified rice milk, nut milk or soya milk and yogurts. Check the label for added vitamins and minerals.
Oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines for essential fatty acids.
These fish contain the omega 3 ‘DHA’ and ‘EPA’ fish oils which aid your baby’s brain and eye development and are a good dietary source of vitamin D, protein and iron.
- Aim to eat oily fish 2 times a week.
- If you don’t eat fish at all, you can include fortified milk or eggs with added omega 3 and include flaxseed (linseed)
Protein foods for growth and development of cells -lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, peas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Try to include red meat3 times a week- this is a rich source of iron which is needed for healthy blood development and will help prevent anaemia in pregnancy Chicken and fish also contain iron in smaller amounts. Eggs and beans contain a different type of iron which is not as easy for your body to absorb, but is still useful, especially if you are vegetarian.
Beans, peas and lentils are great vegetable protein sources and can be included in dishes as a healthy alternative to meat – you don’t need to be vegetarian to eat them.
- Choose 2-3 servings each day.
- Choose lean meat and poultry, and trim off extra fat. Cook meat and chicken through to kill harmful bacteria.
- Avoid high-fat, high salt, processed meats like sausages, burgers, chicken nuggets, salami, and corned beef.
- Boil, bake or grill meat and fish and boil, poach or scramble eggs rather than frying
- Avoid soft boiled or very runny eggs. Cook eggs until the yolk is solid to ensure all bacteria are killed).
Limit fatty or sugary foods and drinks
These foods are high in calories and low in nutrients, and can lead to excess weight gain which is unhealthy for both you and your baby.
- Cut down on biscuits, cakes, muffins, chocolate, sweets and crisps. Think of them as portioned treats to have 3 times a week or so.
- Avoid deep-fried food and keep take-aways or fast food to maximum once a week.
- Use small amounts of oil in cooking, or use spray oils when frying.
- Avoid adding extra sugar to tea, coffee and cereals.
- Drink water for thirst. Limit fruit juice to 1 small glass per day and avoid fizzy drinks.
To help prevent neural tube defects (NTD) like spina bifida you should take a 400µg folic acid supplement daily before stopping contraception and up to the 12th week of pregnancy to help the development of your baby’s brain and spinal cord.
- You should also include folate-rich foods (green vegetables, fortified bread and cereals) in your diet.
- If you have diabetes, had a previous NTD-affected pregnancy, take medicine for epilepsy or are obese you should speak to your doctor about taking a higher dose of folic acid before stopping contraception and up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
- Vitamin D is vital for calcium absorption for you and your baby.
- Include foods rich in vitamin D such as oily fish once a week and fortified milk every day.
- A daily vitamin D supplement of 5μg is recommended during pregnancy.
- We need iron to carry oxygen in red blood cells to all parts of our body.
The main sources of high quality iron are meat, poultry, and fish. Another type of iron is present in eggs, beans, chickpeas, lentils dark green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Eating fruit or vegetables rich in Vitamin C at the same time as these foods will boost iron absorption. For example, add berries to breakfast cereal or tomatoes to an egg sandwich.
- Some women may become anaemic (low blood count) during pregnancy. This can be caused by many things, and is more common towards the end of pregnancy.
- If your midwife or doctor tells you your iron is low, (also known as low haemoglobin or anaemia) make sure that you are including iron rich foods in your daily diet. In some cases you may need to take an iron supplement to help prevent or treat anaemia in pregnancy. Your doctor or midwife will guide you on the best supplement to take. A pregnancy multivitamin contains a small amount of iron and may help prevent low iron in pregnancy but it would not be enough to treat a low level.
- Always choose a multivitamin/mineral supplement specific for pregnancy.
- They should contain all the additional folic acid (400mcg) and vitamin D (200IU/ 5mcg) you need at this time.
For more information on foods to avoid or limit, food hygiene and food safety, please see the other INDI factsheets in the ‘Women’s Health’ section.
Further Information / Useful Links:
HSE publication: Healthy Eating in Pregnancy http://www.irishhealth.com/clin/documents/healthy_eating_for_pregnancy.pdf
HSE antenatal hub: www.whatsupmum.ie
HSE breastfeeding hub: www.breastfeeding.ie
INDI Food Safety and Hygiene in Pregnancy factsheet
INDI Planning a Pregnancyfactsheet
INDI Frequently Asked Questions about food in Pregnancyfactsheet
Updated by Fiona Dunlevy MINDI, Sinead Curran MINDI & Orna O Brien MINDI January 2016.
Review date: December 2018.
© 2016 Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, INDI. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in its entirety provided the source is acknowledged. This information is not meant to replace advice from your medical doctor or individual counselling with a dietitian. It is intended for educational and informational purposes only.
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