Pregnancy

Eating healthily during pregnancy will help your baby develop and grow and will help keep you fit and well. You don’t need to go on a special diet, but make sure that you follow the basic healthy eating guidelines in order to get the right balance of nutrients that you and your baby need. Here are some extras to consider.

pregnant women in the kitchenFolic acid

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is found in some foods as well as in supplement form. If you have enough folic acid around the time you conceive your baby, then there’s less risk of your baby being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

All women who could become pregnant are advised to take a supplement of 400μg (micrograms) of folic acid each day. When you do become pregnant, continue to take the supplement each day for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you’ve just found out you are pregnant and had not been taking folic acid supplements, start them right away and continue to take them until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Folic acid supplements are available over the counter in pharmacies and some supermarkets. If you take folic acid as part of a multivitamin supplement, make sure that it contains 400μg (micrograms) of folic acid and doesn’t contain vitamin A which could harm your baby.

Folic acid is also found in green vegetables, brown rice, orange juice and some breakfast cereals (check the label). You can boost your folic acid by eating foods like these. But you’ll still need to take a supplement to get the full amount you need while you’re pregnant.

Iron

You need extra iron when you’re pregnant to make new blood cells for your developing baby. Many women are low in iron even before they become pregnant. So be sure to eat iron-rich foods regularly throughout your pregnancy.

Lean red meat is the best source of iron in the diet. Other good sources are chicken and turkey - especially the dark meat - and oily fish. Liver has lots of iron too, but you should avoid eating it while you're pregnant because it has very high levels of Vitamin A.

Other foods that contain iron are:

  • peas
  • beans
  • lentils
  • eggs
  • wholegrain bread
  • dried fruit
  • green vegetables 
  • some breakfast cereals (check the label)

Having some salad vegetables, citrus fruits or a glass of fruit juice with your meals will boost your iron absorption.



Some women are advised by their doctor to take iron supplements during pregnancy. Speak to your doctor if you have a history of heavy periods, have been anaemic in the past or if you’re vegetarian or vegan.

Calcium

You need extra calcium in your diet during pregnancy. This is to allow your developing baby’s bones to grow and develop, while looking after your own bones too.

Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt are the best sources of calcium. Pregnant women should have five servings of dairy foods each day. One serving is a glass of milk, a carton of yoghurt (125g) or a matchbox-sized piece of cheese. Avoid unpasteurised dairy products, soft mould-ripened cheeses like Camembert or Brie, and all blue-veined cheese because of the risk of Listeria food poisoning which is dangerous for pregnant women. For more information see our Pregnancy and Listeria publication.

Other foods that have some calcium are:

  • Green leafy vegetables (like broccoli or cabbage)
  • Tinned fish where the bones can be eaten (like sardines or salmon)
  • Nuts
  • Soya products
  • Baked beans
  • Calcium-enriched juice drinks, breads or breakfast cereals (check the labels)

Vitamin D

In the UK women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to take supplements containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day. In the Republic of Ireland pregnant women are advised to take a supplement of 5 micrograms Vitamin D per day. Vitamin D is only found in a small number of foods – in fact we get most of our Vitamin D from the sun. 

Fish and omega fats

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for the developing baby’s brain and eyes. You’ll find these fatty acids in:

  • Oily fish (like herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, trout)
  • White fish (like cod, plaice, whiting)
  • Some vegetables oils (rapeseed, canola, flaxseed, linseed, walnut)

So when you’re pregnant, aim to eat two portions of fish each week, one of which is oily. Some types of fish such as shark, marlin and swordfish (and to a lesser degree tuna) can contain levels of mercury that are too high for your unborn baby. So during pregnancy, you should  note the following:

  • Include a maximum of two portions of oily fish in the week
  • Avoid shark, swordfish and marlin
  • Limit tuna to four tins per week, or two tuna steaks per week

Things to limit during pregnancy:

Vitamin A

Having too much vitamin A may harm your unborn baby. Avoid taking fish liver oil or supplements that contain vitamin A while you’re pregnant. Eating liver is best avoided while pregnant because it is high in Vitamin A 

Alcohol

Avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy. Cutting out alcohol means it cannot harm your baby.

Caffeine

High levels of caffeine might result in babies having a low birth weight, which increases their risk of some health conditions as babies and in later life. High levels of caffeine may also increase the risk of miscarriage. You dont need to cut it out completely but try to keep your caffeine intake below 200mg per day. Caffeine is also found in some cold and flu remedies.

  • 1 mug filter coffee- 140mg
  • 1 mug instant coffee-100mg
  • 1 mug tea-75mg
  • 1 can cola -40mg
  • energy drink- 80mg
  • 50g bar plain chocolate - 50mg
  • 50g bar milk chocolate -25mg

Undercooked or raw eggs

Because of the risk of Salmonella food poisoning. Food poisoning is a much nastier experience when you are pregnant. See cooking eggs safely for more information.

Raw shellfish

Because they may contain bacteria or viruses that may cause food poisoning. Shellfish is perfectly safe to eat if it is cooked thoroughly.

Allergies

Some guidelines recommend that you avoid peanuts during pregnancy, breast feeding, and the first three years of childhood. While the evidence to support these guidelines is not conclusive, it is important to be vigilant until there is more concrete evidence one way or the other, especially if there is a history of atopic disease (asthma, eczema, etc.) in the family.

Pregnancy and Listeria

What is Listeria?

Listeria is a bug that can cause an illness like the flu. It can be dangerous for a number of groups including pregnant women, unborn babies and new babies. A person with a Listeria infection can have symptoms such as fever, tiredness and headache. Sometimes the symptoms are mild, so you might not know you have it. It is important to avoid getting infected with Listeria, because your unborn baby can get infected too. Even a mild illness can cause you to have a miscarriage or a premature birth or your baby to get meningitis. If you have any concerns about symptoms or illness please consult your General Practitioner.

How can I avoid getting infected?

You can stay safe from infection by eating freshly cooked or freshly prepared foods and avoiding foods that could contain Listeria. Listeria can live in meat, milk, butter, cream, yogurt and vegetables. Food that is not cooked, such as salads or food from the fridge, can have Listeria in it. Food that has been cooked before being sold can also contain Listeria.

Eat Fresh

Eat only freshly cooked food and well-washed freshly prepared fruit and vegetables

Foods to avoid

  • Soft cheeses that are ripened by mould, such as Brie, Camembert, Stilton and Danish Blue
  • Paté made from meat, vegetables or fish (Tinned paté is ok)
  • Pre-packed salads, coleslaws, and ready-to-eat foods from salad bars and delicatessens

Cook food thoroughly

  • Thorough cooking of food kills Listeria bacteria
  • Ensure food is cooked thoroughly and piping hot all the way through
  • If eating out, order hot meals

Food to eat only if they are home cooked or reheated thoroughly

  • Smoked fish, such as salmon
  • Chilled pre-cooked meat, such as ham, chicken, spam
  • Cured and smoked meats, such as salami and Parma ham
  • Cooked chilled meals that are ready to eat
  • Unpasteurised milk and food made from unpasteurised milk.  
  • See our brochure on Listeria and Pregnancy (available in English, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Slovak and Chinese)

How to cope with the food-related problems during pregnancy

Morning sickness

About 70% of women suffer from sickness, usually in early pregnancy. By the end of the 4th month of pregnancy, symptoms usually disappear or become much milder. To relieve the symptoms of sickness try to:

  • Eat small but frequent meals (with about two hour intervals)
  • Avoid smells and foods that make your sickness worse
  • Eat more nutritious carbohydrate foods: try dry toasts or crackers, breakfast cereals, fruits and vegetable salads at any time during the day
  • Eat less fatty and sugary foods

Constipation

35-40% of pregnant women suffer from constipation during pregnancy.It may help to:

  • Drink plenty of fluid such as plain water (6-8 cups a day)
  • Increase intake of foods rich in fiber (wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholegrain cereals, fresh and dried vegetables and fruits, especially prunes and figs)

Remember, iron supplements can sometimes cause or aggravate the symptoms of constipation. If you are taking iron supplements and notice that the symptoms of constipation progress, consult your doctor.

Heartburn

This is also a common problem during pregnancy. It may occur anytime, but symptoms usually get worse at the end of pregnancy. Some tips to help with heartburn :

  • Avoid chocolate, fatty foods, alcohol and mint, especially before bedtime - they tend to relax oesophageal muscle so that acid from the stomach comes up into the oesophagus more easily
  • Avoid acidic and spicy foods that may irritate the lining of the stomach (tomato, citrus fruits and juices, vinegar, hot pepper, etc.)
  • Milk and dairy products can temporarily relieve the symptoms of heartburn
  • Eat slowly, drink fluids between meals rather than with meals
  • Eat small frequent meals, do not eat large meals before bedtime
  • Sleep well propped up, not lying flat.

Remember to consult your doctor before taking antacid medications

Some antacids can bind iron in foods and make it more difficult for you to absorb iron from your food or supplements.

More information about healthy eating during pregnancy

The following link provides useful support and information on healthy eating during pregnancy: