It can be confusing knowing what is safe to eat and what isn’t during your pregnancy, especially when well-meaning older relatives try to give you advice that may have been the norm a few decades ago, but isn’t necessarily considered safe today. For example, well into the 1950s, expectant mothers were encouraged to smoke cigarettes to promote a stress free pregnancy, whilst today the dangers of smoking are not only heavily stressed to pregnant women, but also to the general population.
However, you don’t need a university degree in nutrition to eat well in pregnancy. Instead there are some simple rules to try and follow wherever possible.
Eating For Two? It’s Not Necessary
Now that you are pregnant you might be tempted to binge on biscuits or scoff down some scrumptious cream cakes. After all, you are eating for two now right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, the idea that you need to eat to “eat for two” during your pregnancy is a myth and the general consensus amongst health experts is that during the first six months of your pregnancy you don’t need to consume any extra calories, and in the last three months you only need to consume an extra 200 calories a day. To give you an idea, that is the equivalent of a 500ml bottle of non-diet cola or a small bowl of bran cereal.
A Healthy Diet In Pregnancy
Furthermore, it’s important to eat healthily during your pregnancy, in order to ensure that your growing baby receives all of the nutrients he or she needs, and to help you maintain your own health, making labour and post-birth recovery easier.
There isn’t a special diet you need to follow when you are pregnant, instead it’s all about getting a good balance of food from the four main food groups:
Fruit & Vegetables
You should aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Not only are they packed with vitamins and minerals vital to your baby’s development, but they are also an excellent source of fibre, which will help with any constipation you may be experiencing as part of your pregnancy.
As well as fresh fruit and vegetables, canned, dried, frozen, and stewed fruit and vegetables also count, though you should be wary of any additional salt and sugar that is added. Beans and pulses, as well as fruit juice, count as no more than one portion a day because they lack the same level of nutrients. Furthermore, more recent research has suggested that fruit juice should not count as a portion at all, thanks to its high (naturally occurring) sugar content and the debate on this is currently on-going.
If you are struggling to get your five portions a day, then think about ways that you can incorporate them into your daily diet. For example, you could add some fresh or frozen berries to your morning cereal, make crudités from carrots, peppers, and cucumbers for lunch to dip into hummus, or make a pasta sauce with tomatoes, courgettes, squash, carrots, and spinach flavoured with fresh herbs. You could even make savoury muffins with grated vegetables to have as a handy snack.
Starchy Foods – Carbohydrates
The government’s Eat Well Plate suggests that starchy foods, such as pasta, bread, cereals, and potatoes, should make up around a third of our daily diet. During your pregnancy, consider switching to wholemeal versions of these foods, as these contain a lot more fibre that will help you to relieve constipation. Potatoes with the skin left on also contain more fibre, and a jacket potato with baked beans and cheese makes for a tasty lunch.
When choosing a breakfast cereal, look for wholemeal versions and check out the sugar content. A lot of cereal that is marketed as healthy frequently contains a lot of added sugar. Porridge is a great source of carbohydrate, it’s cheap, and very filling so you are less likely to reach for the biscuits come mid-morning.
Milk & Dairy
Milk and other dairy products frequently get bad press from some health food advocates, however, in your pregnancy it is an important source of calcium, necessary for helping your baby to grow strong bones. Go for a low fat version such as semi-skimmed milk or low fat yogurt. Consider switching to a natural yogurt rather than one that is pre-flavoured and add your own fruit or honey instead, as most yogurts that are flavoured are high in sugar.
There are certain dairy foods that you should avoid in your pregnancy, and we detail them further on in this article.
Protein – Meat, Fish, Beans
About one sixth of your daily diet should consist of protein rich foods such as eggs, meat, fish, and beans. Protein contains amino acids that are fundamental for your baby’s cell development. Make sure that any meat you eat is cooked through with no red juices. There are also limits to how much oily fish and what type of fish you should eat during your pregnancy, as detailed later in this article. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, make sure that you eat plenty of beans and pulses, as well as nuts, all of which provide an alternative source of protein. Eggs are another great source, but again, they need to be cooked through with no runny parts.
Foods That Are High In Sugar / Fat
Of course, unless you are some sort of super saint when it comes to diet, you will undoubtedly find yourself reaching for the chocolate or crisps at some point during your pregnancy. This is fine, but try to limit the amount of sugary and fatty foods you eat each day. This not only includes the sugars and fats we might be more familiar with, such as that in chocolate or cream cakes, but also hidden sugars and fats, such as those found in many soft drinks, salad dressings and pre-made sauces.
Opt for low fat or low sugar / sugar free versions if you can. This will help you to maintain a healthy weight growth during your pregnancy, which will make your post-labour recovery that much easier, and reduce your chances of developing complications such as gestational diabetes. Stock up on healthy snacks such as fruit and natural yogurt.
What Foods & Drinks Do I Need To Avoid During Pregnancy?
If you are in the very early stages of pregnancy, then you may not feel like eating very much at all thanks to nausea and morning sickness. However, if you do have an appetite then you need to think about the types of foods that you are eating during your pregnancy.
That is because certain foods may carry an increased risk of food poisoning and other infections, which, particularly in the earlier stages of pregnancy, can increase your risk of miscarriage. Other foods are high in certain chemicals or nutrients that whilst would normally be harmless to humans, can cause problems in pregnancy.
Are Eggs Safe To Eat In Pregnancy?
Salmonella bacteria is often found within eggs, so you should avoid eating eggs that are not cooked or runny. The cooking process destroys the bacteria so providing that the eggs are cooked through fully then eating them should be perfectly safe. Raw eggs can also be found in various dishes including:
- Home-made ice cream (note that the ice cream you buy in supermarkets, etc. will be pasteurised and safe to eat. Always check if you are eating ice cream that has been made fresh, for example, from a restaurant)
- Home-made mayonnaise (the mayonnaise you buy in jars in supermarkets is fine)
- Home-made hollandaise sauce
Is Cheese Safe To Eat In Pregnancy?
If you are fan of the odd ploughman’s lunch or finishing off a three course meal with cheese and biscuits, then thankfully you don’t have to completely miss out now that you are pregnant. You do however, need to be careful about the types of cheese you eat. This is because some cheeses contain bacteria that can lead to food poisoning. Most of the British classics and hard cheeses such as Cheddar are fine to eat, but the cheeses you should avoid include:
- Mould Ripened Cheeses – e.g. Brie, Camembert, Chevre
- Blue Cheeses – i.e. Danish, Roquefort
- Any other soft cheeses that have not been made with pasteurised milk
Cooking the cheese does remove the bacteria, although you need to be sure that the cheese is cooked right through, for example, in a baked Camembert.
Is Meat Safe To Eat In Pregnancy?
You should avoid all raw and rare meat during your pregnancy. Instead, meat should be cooked through with no red parts. Cured meats such as chorizo or Palma ham and fresh pate, including that made from vegetables, can contain bacteria and should be avoided during your pregnancy. If you are cooking the cured meat, such as on a pizza, this will destroy the bacteria and make it safe to eat.
Liver contains high amounts of Vitamin A, which can be harmful to unborn babies and, therefore, you should not eat it during your pregnancy.
Is Fish Safe To Eat In Pregnancy?
Fish is an important part of a healthy diet as it is rich in vitamins and minerals, however, there are some fish that should not be eaten during your pregnancy. Shark, Swordfish, and Marlin all contain high levels of mercury and should not be eaten, whilst Tuna should be limited to two portions a week as it also contains mercury in lower amounts. In addition, you should limit the amount of oily fish you eat to two portions a week due to the pollutants that are present in these fish. Oily fish include salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines.
Shellfish is fine to eat during your pregnancy, providing it is cooked through. You should avoid eating raw fish, but fish that has been smoked, such as salmon, is OK to eat as the bacteria is killed by the smoking process.
Are Peanuts Safe To Eat In Pregnancy?
Previously, expectant mothers in the UK were advised to avoid eating peanuts in their pregnancy, as it was thought to increase the chances of their babies being born with a severe peanut allergy. However, this advice has now changed and eating peanuts during your pregnancy is fine, provided that you are not allergic to them yourself.
Other Foods To Avoid During Pregnancy
You should only consume pasteurised dairy products, such as milk or yogurt during your pregnancy. Pasteurisation removes any potentially dangerous bacteria.
Make sure you wash all fruit and vegetables before consuming them, as bacteria that lives in the soil that may be found on the produce.
Can I Drink Tea or Coffee During Pregnancy?
The British love their tea, and drinking a good old fashioned cuppa is a national pastime, whilst coffee is increasingly popular thanks to the rapid growth of coffee chains on our high streets. If you are partial to a brew then, thankfully, you don’t need to give it up all together now that you are pregnant, however, you do need to limit the amount of caffeine you consume.
Drinking too much caffeine on a regular basis can increase your risk of having a miscarriage, or it could eventually lead to your baby being born with a very low birth weight, potentially leading to further complications. The UK government and NHS recommend that during your pregnancy, you limit yourself to 200mg of caffeine a day. That is the equivalent of two mugs of tea, or two mugs of instant coffee, or one mug of filter coffee per day. Don’t forget that caffeine is also present in some energy drinks, colas and chocolate, and that caffeine amounts in coffees from coffee shops do vary from brand to brand. Try not to panic if every once in a while you exceed the 200mg limit, you won’t do any lasting harm as long as you are not regularly doing so.
Many women go off the taste of tea or coffee completely during their pregnancy thanks to hormone and taste changes, however, if that isn’t you and you can’t go without, then consider switching to a de-caff version. If before you were pregnant you drank a lot of caffeine then reducing the amount you have may lead to caffeine withdrawal, which can result in headaches and tiredness. Thankfully, this doesn’t last too long. You may also find that reducing or abstaining from caffeine can help reduce the indigestion symptoms that many pregnant women experience, as caffeine can cause indigestion as it increases the amount of acid in your stomach.
Can I Drink Alcohol During My Pregnancy?
It is best to avoid alcohol during your pregnancy. That’s because that whilst there has been a great deal of research into the topic, scientists and other experts have struggled to agree on what would be a safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy. One thing most experts do agree on is that during the first three months of your pregnancy you should avoid alcohol all together. Don’t panic if you were drinking before you discovered you were pregnant, although the government and NHS does recommend that if you are trying to conceive you cut out all alcohol in order to avoid this scenario.
Regularly drinking more than one or two units of alcohol a week during your pregnancy has been shown to have a detrimental effect an unborn baby’s health. It can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and increased risk of behavioural problems and learning difficulties. Women who drink heavily during their pregnancy, even if it is just on one occasion, may go on to birth a child with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) which has a number of disorders associated with it, including cerebral palsy, facial abnormalities, organ problems, learning and behavioural problems, and epilepsy.
If you haven’t announced your pregnancy yet and friends and family are pressuring you to have a drink, then try telling them that you are on a diet or nominate yourself as the designated driver. If it helps, consider asking your partner to give up alcohol at the same time to provide you with support. Finally, when choosing an alternative to alcohol in a pub, be aware that many soft drinks contain high amounts of sugar and caffeine.
A Healthy Diet Is A Healthy Pregnancy
Your midwife and GP can support you to make healthy changes to your diet during your pregnancy. If you haven’t paid attention to your diet before, now is a good time to start. Small changes will make a huge difference to your health and that of your baby. For more information, consider signing up to the NHS’s Better Health Start for Life, which will send you regular emails about how to keep healthy during your pregnancy and beyond.