A healthy diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle at any time, but is especially vital if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy. Eating healthily during pregnancy will help your baby to develop and grow, and will keep you fit and well.
You don’t need to go on a special diet, but it’s important to eat a variety of different foods every day to get the right balance of nutrients that you and your baby need. It is best to get vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat, but when you’re pregnant you need to take some supplements as well to make sure you get everything you need. You can find out more about vitamins and supplements in pregnancy.
You will probably find that you are more hungry than usual, but you don’t need to ‘eat for two’ – even if you are expecting twins or triplets. Have a healthy breakfast every day because this can help you to avoid snacking on foods that are high in fat and sugar.
Eating healthily often means just changing the amounts of different foods you eat so that your diet is varied, rather than cutting out all your favourites. You will need to be careful with your diet if you develop gestational diabetes – your doctor or midwife will advise you.
Fruit and vegetables
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables because these provide vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre, which helps digestion and prevents constipation. Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – these can be fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced. Always wash them carefully. Cook vegetables lightly in a little water, or eat them raw but well washed to get the benefit of the nutrients they contain.
Starchy foods (carbohydrates)
Starchy foods are an important source of vitamins and fibre, and are satisfying without containing too many calories. They include bread, potatoes, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, maize, millet, oats, sweet potatoes, yams, and cornmeal. These foods should be the main part of every meal. Eat wholemeal instead of processed (white) varieties when you can.
Sources of protein include:
- meat (but avoid liver)
Eat some protein every day. Choose lean meat, remove the skin from poultry, and cook it using only a little fat. Make sure eggs, poultry, burgers, sausages and whole cuts of meat such as lamb, beef and pork are cooked all the way through. Check that there is no pink meat, and that juices have no pink or red in them.
Try to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish such as salmon, sardines or mackerel. There are some types of fish you should avoid in pregnancy: see Foods to avoid.
Dairy foods such as milk, cheese, fromage frais and yoghurt are important because they contain calcium and other nutrients that your baby needs. Choose low-fat varieties wherever possible. For example, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, low-fat yoghurt and half-fat hard cheese. Aim for two to three portions a day. There are some cheeses you should avoid in pregnancy: see Foods to avoid. Foods that are high in sugar, fat or both
- all spreading fats (such as butter)
- salad dressings
- ice cream
- fizzy drinks
You should eat only a small amount of these foods. Sugary foods and drinks contain calories without providing any other nutrients, and can contribute to weight gain, obesity and tooth decay.
Fat is very high in calories, and eating too many fatty foods is likely to make you put on weight. Having too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases the chance of developing heart disease. Try to cut down on saturated fat, and have foods rich in unsaturated fat instead. Find out about saturated and unsaturated fat.
If you get hungry between meals, try not to eat snacks that are high in fat and/or sugar, such as sweets, biscuits, crisps or chocolate. Instead, choose from the following nutritious snacks:
- sandwiches or pitta bread filled with grated cheese, lean ham, mashed tuna, salmon, or sardines, with salad
- salad vegetables, such as carrot, celery or cucumber
- low-fat yoghurt or fromage frais
- hummus with bread or vegetable sticks
- ready-to-eat apricots, figs or prunes
- vegetable and bean soups
- unsweetened breakfast cereals, or porridge, with milk
- milky drinks or unsweetened fruit juices
- fresh fruit
- baked beans on toast or a baked potato
Preparing food safely
- wash fruit, vegetables and salads to remove all traces of soil, which may contain toxoplasma, a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis – toxoplasmosis can harm your unborn baby
- wash all surfaces and utensils, and your hands, after preparing raw meat – this will help to avoid toxoplasmosis
- make sure that raw foods are stored separately from ready-to-eat foods, otherwise there’s a risk of contamination – this is to avoid other types of food poisoning from meat (such as salmonella, campylobacter and E.coli)
- use a separate chopping board for raw meats
- heat ready meals until they’re piping hot all the way through – this is especially important for meals containing poultry
You also need to make sure that some foods, such as eggs, poultry, burgers, sausages and whole cuts of meat like lamb, beef and pork are cooked very thoroughly: see Foods to avoid.
The Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers to pregnant women who qualify, and families who qualify. The vouchers can be used to buy milk and plain fresh and frozen vegetables at local shops. You’ll also get coupons that can be exchanged for free vitamins locally.
You qualify for Healthy Start if you’re at least 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four years old, and you or your family get:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit unless your family is receiving Working Tax Credit run-on only*) and has an annual family income of £16,190 or less (2012/13)
If you are pregnant and under 18 years old, you qualify for Healthy Start vouchers regardless of your income.
*Working Tax Credit run-on is the Working Tax Credit you receive in the four weeks immediately after you have stopped working for 16 hours per week (single adults) or 24 hours per week (couples).
Planning your pregnancy
If you’re planning on getting pregnant, you can improve your chances of conceiving and having a successful pregnancy by following the steps on this page.
Take a 400-microgram (400mcg) supplement of folic acid every day while you’re trying to get pregnant, and up until you’re 12 weeks pregnant. This is advised due to the fact that folic acid reduces the risk of your baby having a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida. A neural tube defect is when the foetus’s spinal cord (part of the body’s nervous system) doesn’t form normally. Women with epilepsy, diabetes and other medical conditions are recommended to take a 5 milligram (5mg) supplement.
You can get folic acid tablets at pharmacies, or talk to your GP about getting a prescription. Don’t worry if you get pregnant unexpectedly and weren’t taking folic acid supplements. Start taking them as soon as you find out, until you’re past the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Find out more about healthy diet in pregnancy and foods to avoid when you’re pregnant.
Smoking during pregnancy has been linked to a variety of health problems including premature birth, low birthweight, cot death (also known as sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS), miscarriage and breathing problems/wheezing in the first six months of life.
You can find useful information on the dangers of smoking during pregnancy, and advice on how to stop, on the Go Smokefree website.
Quitting can be hard, no matter how much you want to, but support is available. The NHS Pregnancy Smoking Helpline on 0800 169 9169 offers free help, support and advice on stopping smoking when you’re pregnant. It’s open from noon to 9pm every day, and a specially trained person will talk to you. They can send you a free information pack and give you details of your local NHS stop-smoking service.
Smoke from other people’s cigarettes can damage your baby, so ask your partner, friends and family not to smoke near you.
Cut out alcohol
Don’t drink alcohol if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Alcohol can be passed to your unborn baby, and too much exposure to alcohol can affect your baby’s development.
If you choose to drink, protect your baby by not drinking more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and don’t get drunk. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises women who are pregnant to avoid alcohol in the first three months in particular, because of the increased risk of miscarriage.
Keep to a healthy weight
If you’re overweight you may have problems getting pregnant, and if you’re having fertility treatment it’s less likely to work. Being overweight or obese (having a BMI over 30) also raises the risk of some pregnancy problems, such as high blood pressure, blood clots, miscarriage and gestational diabetes. Before you get pregnant you can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI. But once you’re pregnant this may not be accurate, so consult your midwife or doctor instead.
Having a healthy diet and getting moderate exercise are advised in pregnancy, and it’s important not to gain too much weight. You can keep to a healthy weight by eating a healthy diet and getting exercise.
What exercise should I do during pregnancy?
The more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your changing shape and weight gain. It will also help you to cope with labour and get back into shape after the birth.
Keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise (sport, running, yoga, dancing, or even walking to the shops and back) for as long as you feel comfortable. Exercise is not dangerous for your baby – there is some evidence that active women are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour.
Don’t exhaust yourself. You may need to slow down as your pregnancy progresses or if your maternity team advises you to. If in doubt, consult your maternity team. As a general rule, you should be able to hold a conversation as you exercise when pregnant. If you become breathless as you talk, then you’re probably exercising too strenuously.
If you weren’t active before you got pregnant, don’t suddenly take up strenuous exercise. If you start an aerobic exercise programme (such as running, swimming, cycling, walking or aerobics classes), tell the instructor that you’re pregnant and begin with no more than 15 minutes of continuous exercise, three times a week. Increase this gradually to at least four 30-minute sessions a week.
Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to be beneficial.
Eating a healthy, varied diet in pregnancy will help you to get most of the vitamins and minerals you need. There are some vitamins and minerals that are especially important.
It is best to get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, but when you are pregnant you will need to take some supplements as well to make sure you get everything you need. It’s recommended that you take:
10 micrograms of vitamin D each day throughout your pregnancy and if you breastfeed
400 micrograms of folic acid each day – you should take this from before you are pregnant until you are 12 weeks pregnant
Do not take vitamin A supplements, or any supplements containing vitamin A (retinol), as too much could harm your baby.
You can get supplements from pharmacies and supermarkets, or your GP may be able to prescribe them for you. If you want to get your folic acid or vitamin D from a multivitamin tablet, make sure that the tablet does not contain vitamin A (or retinol).
Folic acid is important for pregnancy as it can help prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. You should take a 400 microgram folic acid tablet every day while you are trying to get pregnant and until you are 12 weeks pregnant. If you didn’t take folic acid before you conceived, you should start as soon as you find out that you are pregnant.
You should also eat foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid), such as green leafy vegetables and brown rice. Some breakfast cereals, breads and margarines have folic acid added to them.
In addition, women who are taking anti-epileptic medication should consult their GP for advice, as they may also need to take a higher dose of folic acid.
If any of the above applies to you, talk to your GP as they can prescribe a higher dose of folic acid. Your GP or midwife may also recommend additional screening tests during your pregnancy.
Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, these are needed to keep bones and teeth healthy.
You need to take vitamin D during your pregnancy to provide your baby with enough vitamin D for the first few months of its life. You should take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day when you are pregnant and if you breastfeed.
In children, not having enough vitamin D can cause their bones to soften and can lead to rickets (a disease that affects bone development in children).
Vitamin D can be found naturally in oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel and sardines), eggs and meat. Some manufacturers add it to some breakfast cereals, soya products, some dairy products, powdered milk, and fat spreads such as margarine.
The best source of vitamin D is summer sunlight on your skin. The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D is different for every person, and depends on things such as skin type, the time of day and the time of year. However, you don’t need to sunbathe: the amount of sun you need to make enough vitamin D is less than the amount that causes tanning or burning. If you have dark skin or always cover your skin, you may be at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your midwife or doctor if this applies to you.
If you are short of iron, you’ll probably get very tired and may suffer from anaemia. Lean meat, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and nuts contain iron. If you’d like to eat peanuts or foods that contain peanuts (such as peanut butter) during pregnancy, you can do so as part of a healthy balanced diet unless you’re allergic to them or your health professional advises you not to. Many breakfast cereals have iron added. If the iron level in your blood becomes low, your GP or midwife will advise you to take iron supplements.
Vitamin C protects cells and helps keep them healthy. A balanced diet containing fruit and vegetables, including broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers, and blackcurrants, can provide all the vitamin C you need.
Calcium is vital for making your baby’s bones and teeth. Dairy products and fish with edible bones – such as sardines – are rich in calcium. Breakfast cereals, dried fruit – such as figs and apricots – bread, almonds, tofu (a vegetable protein made from soya beans) and green leafy vegetables – such as watercress, broccoli and curly kale – are other good sources of calcium.
Vegetarian, vegan and special diets
A varied and balanced vegetarian diet should give enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it hard to get enough iron and vitamin B12. Talk to your midwife or doctor about how to make sure you are getting enough of these important nutrients.
If you are vegan (you cut out all animal products from your diet), or you follow another type of restricted diet because of food intolerance (for example, a gluten free diet for coeliac disease) or for religious reasons, talk to your midwife or GP. Ask to be referred to a dietitian for advice on how to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need for you and your baby.
Work and pregnancy
If you work with chemicals, lead or X-rays, or in a job with a lot of lifting, you may be risking your and your baby’s health. If you have any worries about this, talk to your doctor, midwife, occupational health nurse, union representative, or someone in the personnel department where you work.
If there’s a known and recognised risk, it may be illegal for you to continue to work. In this case, your employer must offer you suitable alternative work on the same terms and conditions as your original job.
If no safe alternative is available, your employer should suspend you on full pay (give you paid leave) for as long as necessary to avoid the risk. If your employer fails to pay you during your suspension, you can bring a claim in an employment tribunal (within three months). This would not affect your maternity pay or maternity leave.
Some women are concerned about reports of the effects of computer screens in pregnancy. The most recent research shows no evidence of a risk from visual display units (VDUs) on computers.
Coping at work
You might get more tired than usual, particularly in the first few and last few weeks of pregnancy. Try to use your lunch break to eat and rest, not to do the shopping. If travelling in rush hour is exhausting, ask your employer if you can work slightly different hours for a while.
Don’t rush home and start another job cleaning and cooking. If possible, ask your partner or a member of your family to do it. If you’re on your own, keep housework to a minimum and go to bed early if you can.
If you’re at work during pregnancy, you need to know your rights to antenatal care, maternity leave and benefits. GOV.UK has more information on working in pregnancy, including your right to reasonable paid time off for antenatal care.