Questions about diet in pregnancy

Common questions about diet in pregnancy answered.

I am pregnant. Should I be eating for two?

During pregnancy almost everyone is told by some well-meaning person to have a second helping, or to eat more of what they fancy, ‘...because you’re eating for two now’.

It’s not true!

Amazingly, your baby takes everything he or she needs from your body. Up until the third trimester (six months into your pregnancy) your baby grows well without any extra calories at all. It is more important that you ensure your diet is rich in nutrients such as iron, calcium and other vitamins and minerals so that your body can provide enough for the both of you.  In the last three months you may need a little extra food, but only up to 200 extra calories a day, which is about two slices of wholemeal toast and butter.

Not all calories are equal. Choosing 200 calories of healthy food, such as a low-fat yoghurt with banana, will provide you with essential nutrients, such as calcium, which is important for the growth of your baby. However, 200 extra calories from crisps will provide you with very few essential nutrients.

I think I am several weeks pregnant. Is it too late to take folic acid?

Folic acid is important in the early weeks of pregnancy to help prevent spina bifida. Women are encouraged to take 400mcg a day before they become pregnant and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Start taking the supplements daily from now until you have had your scan and know you are beyond 12 weeks. You can keep taking it throughout the pregnancy if you wish but the main benefit to your baby is in those very early weeks.

Read more about folic acid and other supplements.

What foods should I avoid in pregnancy?

You're probably thinking more carefully about a healthy diet anyway now that you're pregnant, but you also need to take a few steps to help keep you and your baby healthy.

When you are pregnant you are more vulnerable to food poisoning. Some food poisoning bacteria can cross the placenta and harm your baby, so take extra care with food hygiene in the kitchen. Don't eat food that is past its use-by date, and make sure that you cook and reheat foods thoroughly.

 Find out more about what food to avoid in pregnancy.

What cheese can I eat now I'm pregnant?

The two groups of cheese to avoid in pregnancy are:

  • soft cheeses with white rinds, such as brie, camembert and mould-ripened goats’ cheese
  • soft blue cheeses, such as Danish blue, gorgonzola and Roquefort.

If you cook these cheeses to steaming hot, however, they are safe to eat.

All hard cheeses are safe to eat in pregnancy - this includes cheddar, parmesan and stilton. Soft cheeses that are not mould-ripened are safe to eat as long as they are pasteurised. This includes cottage cheese, mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, paneer, ricotta and halloumi.

 Find out more about what food to avoid in pregnancy.

Can I eat packaged salad during pregnancy?

If you buy prepared salad that is pre-washed, it's fine to eat as long as you make sure you keep it in the fridge and don't eat it after the use-by date. Check the ingredients in any packaged salads you buy to make sure they don't contain foods you should avoid in pregnancy.

If salad has been left out at room temperature for a long time, it's best not to eat it as bacteria can grow quickly.

If you buy bagged salad that has not been pre-washed, it should say 'wash before use' on the pack. In this case, as with all vegetables and fruits that have not been pre-washed, you should wash the salad thoroughly.

Can I eat seafood during pregnancy?

Seafood includes fish and shellfish.

Fish is good for you and you should aim to eat at least two portions a week. You don't need to restrict white fish but there are some fish you should limit or avoid.

  • You should limit oily fish, such as tuna, mackerel and sardines, to no more than two portions a week, because they can contain pollutants, which can be harmful to your developing baby. However you should eat one portion a week as it contains omega-3 essential oils.
  • Tuna can also contain levels of mercury that could damage your baby's developing nervous system if you eat too much[i]. Because of this, you should have no more than two fresh tuna steaks or four cans (140g drained weight) each week.
  • Avoid shark, swordfish and marlin completely as they contain high levels of mercury.
  • You should also avoid uncooked shellfish - oysters for example - as they can cause food poisoning.
  • Sushi made with raw fish is normally safe to eat as the fish is frozen or cured if necessary, and this kills off any parasites that may be harmful. If you’re eating sushi in a restaurant, ask whether all shellfish has been cooked and whether the fish has been frozen. You should avoid any sushi containing raw shellfish[ii].

Sushi sold in shops and supermarkets is not normally prepared there and should be fine to eat. The ready-made sushi bought in by shops or restaurants uses raw fish that will have been frozen before use[iii].

If you make sushi yourself at home, make sure you freeze the fish for at least 24 hours before using it.

  • Shellfish includes crustaceans, such as crab, lobster and prawns, and molluscs, such as mussels, cockles and oysters. Cooked shellfish is safe to eat but raw shellfish can cause food poisoning and you should avoid eating it during your pregnancy.

How much weight will I gain when I’m pregnant?

Doctors in the UK are still trying to decide how much weight gain is ok in pregnancy. All of us gain some weight when we’re pregnant, especially at the end of pregnancy, and each of us is different, that is why doctors find it hard to say how much weight gain is OK for each person.

In America, guidelines suggest that women who are overweight at the start of their pregnancies (or have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above) should not put on more than seven kg or one stone (as recommended by the Institute of Medicine).

The important thing is to keep weight gain to a safe and healthy level for you and your baby. Your doctor or midwife may be able to advise you on what’s right for you.

The weight you put on includes your baby, the placenta, the extra fluid in your bloodstream, the water around your baby, your growing breasts, and some extra fat stores to protect your baby.

Your midwife or doctor will weigh you at your first appointment, but after that they’re unlikely to check your weight, unless you’re overweight or underweight.

If you’re underweight, you may be referred for extra scans to monitor your baby’s growth because of the link between underweight mothers and low birth-weight babies. If you’re concerned about weight, talk to your midwife.

Read more about weight management and pregnancy.

I hate the thought of putting on weight. Can I do anything to stop it?

Everyone puts on weight when they’re pregnant, and it is important that you do for your health and your baby's. This is definitely not the time for a crash diet!

Remember, much of the weight will be lost with the birth of your baby and placenta. Instead of worrying about putting on weight, focus on being as healthy as you possibly can, getting a balanced amount of different foods. This will keep you feeling well and help prevent too much weight gain. It’s also really important to stay active during your pregnancy, as this will help keep your muscles in tone.

If you had an eating disorder in the past, read more here.

Help! I have just found out that I am pregnant and am four stone overweight.

Don’t worry and don’t start a drastic diet. Instead, ask for a referral to a dietician or ask what weight management programmes are available for pregnant women in your area. To help yourself and your baby use the next few months to gradually change your lifestyle and eating habits.

If you have not started taking folic acid supplements, begin now until you are at least 12 weeks pregnant. If you are overweight your GP will need to prescribe you a higher dose of folic acid (5mg per day) than standard over the counter preparations.

Talk to your GP, hospital doctor or midwife now about what exercise could help you. It is easier to try some gentle exercise now than to wait until the pregnancy weight also makes you more tired.

You can also adjust what you eat, not through a diet but a healthy eating plan. If you currently use full fat milk buy semi-skimmed, for example, and have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Cut out high fat snacks and alcohol from your diet. Your baby needs real food, full of vitamins and minerals, not empty calories. For more information, see our managing your weight section where we have lots of tips, recipes and snack suggestions for a healthy pregnancy.

I have always been on and off diets. Can you recommend a safe diet for pregnancy?

Even if you are overweight, the advice is to avoid going on a diet, unless you have been put on a closely monitored weight management programme by your doctor or dietician. Try instead to improve the quality of what you eat. Look at how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet and cut back on high fat and sugary snacks. Eat proper meals and do not binge or use laxatives.

You should also seek some more advice because repeated dieting may have left your body lacking in vitamins such as B12 or minerals such as calcium. Do this as a priority so that you can give your baby a flying start.

Maybe it is also time to think about getting some professional help about your feelings towards food and your body. Caring for a baby is physically and emotionally demanding and you owe it to yourself and your baby to feel good about yourself. Make an appointment to see your GP or midwife to discuss this with them further.

I’m a vegetarian and pregnant - everyone's saying I should eat meat. Is this true?

You can have a very healthy pregnancy without eating meat. But you do need to make sure that you have enough protein (from foods like beans, lentils, tofu, quorn, milk, cheese and yoghurt), and iron (from lentils, dried apricots, green leafy vegetables). If you are worried about the quality of your diet, ask your doctor or midwife if you can speak to a nutritionist or dietician.

I'm 11 weeks pregnant and finding it hard to eat a balanced diet as so many foods make me feel sick. Could this harm my baby? 

Many women feel sick during pregnancy, particularly in the first three months. Try to eat small amounts often to avoid your blood sugar levels getting too low. Drink plenty of water and avoid caffeine. There is some scientific evidence to suggest foods or drinks containing ginger help with mild to moderate pregnancy sickness. Although the evidence is limited, it's worth a try! If you can't keep anything down, talk to your midwife. Find out more about pregnancy sickness here. 

What can I eat to boost my iron levels now I'm pregnant?

Iron makes red blood cells for both you and your baby. Red blood cells carry oxygen around your body to your organs and tissues, as well as to your baby.

In pregnancy, the amount of blood and fluid in your body increases by almost 50% and some women find that they are short of red blood cells. This is called anaemia and will be picked up when you have your routine antenatal blood tests.

If you are anaemic, you may lack energy and feel very tired. If you are expecting twins you're more likely to be low in iron.

Foods containing iron include red meat, oily fish, eggs, pulses (peas, beans and lentils, for example), wholegrain or wholemeal breads, nuts, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit. Some breakfast cereals have added iron.

If your blood tests show that you are anaemic, your doctor or midwife will prescribe an iron supplement.

Your body can absorb iron more easily if you have food or drink containing vitamin C at the same time. Many fruits and vegetables are a good source of vitamin C and this is another good reason to have them at every meal. Avoiding tea and coffee at meal times will also help your body absorb iron.

Find out more about vital supplements in pregnancy here

 

Read more

  • 200 calorie pregnancy snacks

    How much should you eat in pregnancy? During most of your pregnancy you do not need to take in extra calories (over the recommended 2,000 a day for women). In the third trimester you should eat an extra 200 extra calories a day.

  • A healthy vegetarian salad with bread

    Nutrition in pregnancy

    Now that you’re pregnant, it’s important to eat well. Good nutrition will keep you healthy and help your baby grow and develop.

  • Box of fresh vegetables

    Healthy eating tips

    Now you're pregnant, people may tell you to have second helpings or to eat more treats '...because you're eating for two'. It’s not true and is likely to lead to extra weight gain.

  • Woman drinking a glass of water

    How much water should I drink?

    It's always important to have plenty of fluids during pregnancy. Not having enough to drink can affect you and your baby.

  • A woman washing her hands with soap

    Campylobactor and pregnancy

    After the recent report by the Food Standards Agency into the Campylobacter bug in supermarket chicken we’ve had lots of people calling us asking whether it’s OK to eat chicken in pregnancy.

  • Woman washing vegetables.

    Tips for food safety

    Food hygiene is important for everyone but it’s particularly good to be careful how you prepare, handle and store food now you're pregnant.

Sources

  1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Weight management before, during and after pregnancy, public health guideline guideline 27, London NICE, 2010
  2. Food Standards Agency, The eatwell plate, London FSA. Also available at: http://www.food.gov.uk/scotland/scotnut/eatwellplate/#.U4yA1CjyRCM (accessed 2 June 2014)
  3. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Antenatal care: care of the healthy pregnant woman, clinical guideline 62, London NICE, 2008
  4. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2008) ‘Antenatal Care’, NICE Clinical Guidelines 62: http://publications.nice.org.uk/antenatal-care-cg62 [accessed 18 January 2015].US National Institutes of Health, Neural tube defects: conditions information, Washington DC US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012. Also availabe at: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/ntds/conditioninfo/Pages/default.aspx (accessed 2 June 2014)
  5. Macdonald S, Magill-Cuerden J, Mayes’ midwifery, fourteenth edition, Edinburgh Bailliere Tindall Elsevier, 2012
  6. National Institutes of Health, Weight gain during pregnancy: re-examining the guidelines, Washington DC US Department of Health and Human Services, 2009. Also available at: http://www.azdhs.gov/azwic/documents/physicians/Report%20Brief%20-%20Weight%20Gain%20During%20Pregnancy.pdf (accessed 2 June 2014
  7. [i] Oken E et al. (2008). “Maternal fish intake during pregnancy blood mercury levels and child cognition at age 3 years in a US cohort.”
  8. Am J Epidemiol 2008;167:1171-118 Is it safe to eat sushi during pregnancy?’, NHS Choices: http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/is-it-safe-to-eat-sushi-during-pregnancy.aspx?categoryid=54 [accessed 18 January 2015] (last reviewed: 5 February 2013; next review due: 5 February 2015). [iii] ibid
  9.  

 
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Last reviewed on August 1st, 2016. Next review date August 1st, 2019.

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