If you’re pregnant or plan to have a baby at some point, this post is for YOU! As many of you know, I spent the last four years working as the dietitian in a women’s health clinic at a local hospital. I’ve met with hundreds of mamas-to-be, so I figured it’s about time I share some advice here on The Dietitian Kitchen! Here’s what you need to know if you’re expecting – or plan to be at some point. (Just a heads up, this post is a bit long, but I promise it’ll be worth your while!)
“What should I eat?”
Of course you need ALL nutrients and a variety of foods, but there are a few nutrients that are especially important when you’ve got a bun in the oven:
1. Fill up on Folate: Folate is super important in early pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects (a type of birth defect that affects the brain and/or spinal cord) and continues to be important in making new red blood cells, DNA production and repair, and more. To get enough, take a prenatal vitamin every day and load up on folate-rich foods like avocados, kale, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
2. Pump up the Iron: Your body’s need for iron increases like crazy when you’re pregnant! It’s important you get enough to help make more blood, prevent anemia, and ensure baby is getting enough (did you know a baby is ideally born with enough iron stored in their little body to last for their first six months of life?). Taking a prenatal vitamin is KEY to make sure you get enough iron, as it’s would be super difficult to meet our needs without it. Also, be intentional about including iron-rich foods as part of your meals and snacks, like lentils, beans, or chickpeas in a salad; chicken or beef as part of some suppers; and nuts or pumpkin seeds as a snack. If you think your iron levels might be low, check with your doctor before you start taking an iron supplement.
3. Bone up on Calcium: Calcium is a big piece of building strong bones and teeth– both for you and your baby. To get enough, make sure calcium-rich foods make an appearance at all or most meals/snacks: milk, fortified plant-based ‘milks’ (most have calcium added, but double check the ingredient list on the carton), yogurt (FYI- most plant-based ‘yogurts’ don’t have calcium added), cheese, almonds, cooked leafy green veggies like kale and spinach, and firm or extra-firm tofu. If you’re wondering whether you’re getting enough calcium, check out this handy cheat sheet.
4. Daily Vitamin D: Unfortunately there aren’t many foods that are rich in vitamin D, and here in Canada we’re too far from the sun for much of the year for our skin to be able to make vitamin D. Therefore, be sure to take a supplement (this is important all the time, not only when you’re pregnant). Vitamin D is necessary for our bodies to absorb and use calcium, it helps keep our immune systems strong, and likely has tons more functions as researchers are still learning more about vitamin D. Most people can meet their vitamin D needs by taking 1000 IU each day.
5. Dish up some DHA: Ever heard of DHA? It’s a type of omega-3 fat (EPA and ALA are the other ones) and is important for babies’ brain and eye development. To get enough, remember ‘T-SMASH’: trout, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, & herring (a former intern of mine told me she used this acronym to remember which fish are rich in DHA). Have one of these fish twice a week (choose a portion a bit bigger than your palm) and you’re good to go. And not to worry, these fish are all low in mercury, so they’re safe to eat a couple times a week while pregnant. Don’t like fish? Then your best bet is a supplement. Most are made from salmon, sardines, and/or anchovies (just stay away from any cod liver oil supplements) and you need about 200-400 mg DHA per day (this is what having one of those fish listed above twice a week averages out to). You can also find algae-based DHA supplements if you’re vegan or have a fish allergy.
“What should I NOT eat?”
This is where I have to be the bad guy (sorry!). When you’re pregnant your immune system isn’t as strong as it normally is, so you’re at a much higher risk of food poisoning – not to mention the stakes are much higher as food poisoning during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, can cause your baby to be born prematurely, or to be born quite ill. I know we all know someone who ate deli meat or sushi during her pregnancy and her baby was fine; however, there is a risk and the stakes are high, so in my mind this isn’t something to mess around with.
1. Deli meats & other processed meats: These bad boys can harbor listeria- a type of bacteria that can cause a nasty type of food poisoning called listeriosis. So skip the cold cuts and be sure to thoroughly cook any other processed meat (ie. sausages, hot dogs, etc), which I’m sure you would have anyways 🙂 If you rely on deli meats as sandwich fillings, here are some safer (not to mention healthier) options: leftover meat (throw an extra chicken breast on the BBQ and slice it up to throw on tomorrow’s sandwich), egg salad, tuna salad (provided it’s canned “light” tuna- lower in mercury than “white”/albacore tuna), or this yummy chickpea salad filling.
2. Raw or undercooked meat & eggs: Make sure all meat & seafood is fully cooked (for steak that means at least ‘medium’ or 71C) and cook your eggs well enough that the yolk is hard. That also means skipping the homemade caesar salad dressing and mayo (shelf-stable store-bought ones are safe).
3. Soft cheeses & unpasteurized dairy: The good news is any milk or yogurt you buy in a grocery store in Canada is pasteurized, so you don’t need to worry about that. (please don’t go buy unpasteurized milk under the table from Farmer Joe down the road) As for cheeses, stick to hard cheeses (cheddar, parmesan, romano, etc) and if in doubt heat it (cooking softer cheeses like ricotta, feta, and mozzarella to the point of being steaming hot destroys any listeria that might be hanging out on them, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the ricotta in your lasagna or the mozzarella on your pizza is safe).
4. Sprouts: Unless they’re cooked (ie. bean sprouts in a stir fry), skip ’em. (that moist package is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria)
5. Caffeine: This isn’t a food safety issue, but consuming large amounts of caffeine can negatively affect your baby’s growth and development. To be safe, keep your caffeine to no more than 300 mg per day- that’s basically 2 8-oz cups of coffee or 4-6 8-oz cups of green or black tea (there’s no caffeine in herbal tea, but we’ll get to that in the next point). Keep in mind ALL the places you’re getting caffeine from: coffee, tea, lattes, iced capps, soda, etc. Check out this handy chart to assess your caffeine intake.
6. Herbal teas: Some herbal teas are safe to drink while pregnant, some aren’t, and some we simply don’t have enough data to know whether they’re safe to drink while pregnant. The ones that ARE safe (steeped normally and up to 2-3 cups per day) are peppermint, ginger, orange peel / citrus peel, rose hip, and red raspberry leaf. If you’re here in Alberta and have questions about anything to do with herbal products, give the Alberta Health Services ‘Medication & Herbal Advice Line’ a call where you can speak to a nurse or pharmacist about anything medication or herbal related (1-800-332-1414).
7. Certain fish: Some fish are quite high in mercury, a toxin that accumulates in our bodies and can irreversibly damage baby’s developing brain. The good news is the highest mercury fish (the ones to avoid) are ones that many people in Canada rarely or never eat: shark, swordfish, marlin, escolar, orange roughy, and fresh or frozen tuna. Just like mercury accumulates in our bodies, it does in fishes’ bodies, too, so it makes sense that the guys at the top of the food chain have the highest levels.
There’s also lots of great info about food safety in general and about while you’re pregnant here .
There you have it, a how-to guide of what to eat (and not eat) when you’re expecting! I hope this info is helpful and brings some clarity if you’ve read conflicting or confusing info about what to eat while pregnant. I hope you have a very happy and healthy pregnancy! Do you have more questions about what to eat (or not eat) while pregnant? Comment below!