Optimal nutrition is important for all stages of life, all the way from our birth to our twilight years. But when it comes to pregnancy, the importance of our diets— of the foods and drinks we put into our bodies—cannot be overstated. Aside from eliminating potentially dangerous recreational and prescription drugs from our routines, the most influential decision we can make is the one we make three times a day: every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While one meal is unlikely to make or break your pregnancy, our dietary patterns as a whole can have a huge impact on your health and the health of your growing baby.
Think about it: during pregnancy, a mom-to-be is literally making a miniature person from scratch. Though poets and writers like to use sculpting, painting, and other fine arts as metaphors for fetal development, the reality is perhaps a little more interesting: your baby is the result of a recipe! The ingredients are the foods you put in your body every single day of your pregnancy. All other things being equal, making a strong, healthy baby is a lot like baking a cake.
Though the perfect cake recipe varies based on whose grandma you ask, the reality is that they all have some things in common. You can’t make a cake without a sweetener of some sort, after all! That sweetener may be cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, or even fruit, but it all serves the same purpose. Much like all cakes need something to make them sweet, all developing babies are made of the same basic compounds. This is why most dietitians make similar recommendations for all of the expecting parents who come see them!
Though expecting parents and their doctors have had some pretty wacky ideas about prenatal nutrition through the millennia, today, we have an abundance of observational studies and experiments to back up our nutritional strategies. Unfortunately, this increased access to information only serves to stress out many parents-to-be, who find only an abundance of bizarre, overpriced ‘super foods’ and supplements touted as being the key to delivering a baby who is healthy, beautiful, and brilliant. But no pressure.
Fortunately, pregnancy doesn’t necessitate ingesting a whole host of supplements and strange imported fruits. Many of the healthiest foods to eat during pregnancy are familiar, delicious, and easy to find—the hard part is getting the information and making sure that we eat them! One of the most important aspects of prenatal nutrition is simply taking in enough calories, which can be difficult for many pregnant individuals. An optimal prenatal diet will include foods that are dense in both calories and nutrition, so your body will have all the tools it needs to build a baby—without you having to eat yourself sick.
Our doctors can monitor our health and our weight gain as the months tick by, but they can’t put the perfect food on our plates at dinner time. Never fear. We have compiled a list of the 10 best foods for pregnancy, so you can eat well and rest easy.
Top 10 Pregnancy Foods
While not particularly high in calories, this low-fat, high-fiber food is worth the plate real estate. The high fiber content may help alleviate constipation, which is a common problem during pregnancy. Broccoli also contains high levels of folate, B vitamins, and both vitamins A and K.
The last two vitamins on that list are known to play a significant role in regulating the body’s Vitamin D stores. Though Vitamin D supplements are often recommended for pregnant women, including broccoli in your diet can be a great way to give your body (and baby’s body) a boost.
Though lentils are a firm foundational food for any healthy diet, they are especially important during pregnancy due to their high levels of folate. Folate, a B vitamin, plays a key role in developing a growing fetus’s central nervous system—including the brain! A diet high in folate is thought to protect against birth defects.
Lentils are also a great source of both protein and iron that is easy on the stomach, which makes them a great choice for those battling nausea or morning sickness.
Bananas are often one of the first solid foods we feed our growing infants, but they also make for excellent prenatal nutrition. They require no preparation, they are gentle on your stomach, and they are a little more calorically dense than other fruits. This means you can boost your fruit and calorie intake without putting a ton of bulk in your stomach on days where you feel nauseated or have no appetite.
Bananas are also a great source of quick, clean energy thanks to their potassium and natural sugars. Bonus: bananas contain Vitamin B6, which the body uses to create red blood cells and neurotransmitters.
If you are struggling to gain the weight your doctor recommends, avocados are the food for you. They are calorie-dense, mild in flavor, loaded with folate and potassium, and full of the healthiest kinds of fat. The high levels of B vitamins can soothe your morning sickness, balance out your mood, and help your body in the construction of your baby’s central nervous system. The creamy texture and mild flavor makes avocados easy to spread on toast or incorporate into sandwiches on days when you need something bland.
Though, if you are gaining too much weight, be careful with portion sizes.
One of the healthiest, heartiest breakfast options during pregnancy is also one of the easiest on the stomach: oatmeal. Oats are loaded with complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, iron, and protein, but low in fat. They are another great food for those who may be struggling with digestive issues, nausea, constipation, and fatigue. The complex carbohydrates digest more slowly, providing steady energy that lasts all morning long.
Oatmeal makes a great base for other pregnancy foods, too— use other pregnancy foods, like fruit and nuts, as toppings for a great start to the day.
You didn’t really think you were going to get through this list without your greens, did you? Spinach, raw or cooked, is chock full of iron, folate, B vitamins, calcium, and antioxidants. For women who are trying to slow their weight gain, spinach can be your dream come true: it offers a ton of nutritional benefits and takes up a bunch of space without a huge caloric hit. Add spinach to lunch and dinner entrees (or even to smoothies!) to increase their bulk and vitamin content without adding too many calories. If you have the opposite problem, try cooking your spinach—it won’t fill you up as fast.
This is the other weight gain food: if you’re gaining too slowly, bring on the nuts and nut butters. These small, tasty morsels are full of healthy fats, calories, iron, and minerals you and your growing baby need. Most nuts boast high amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and Vitamin E, which will help you maintain that healthy, happy pregnancy glow.
Even if you have no trouble eating enough calories, nuts are worth including into your prenatal diet. Add them into salads, smoothies, pastas, or your oatmeal breakfasts.
Widely considered to be the healthiest type of fruit, berries are an absolute must during any pregnancy. Berries of all kinds are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, which prevent free radicals from damaging your (and your baby’s) body cells. They are also full of fiber and water, which will help keep your digestion going at a comfortable pace.
In addition, berries are one of the best foods for your immune system. Eating your favorite berries every day can be a great way to fend off colds that can harm your and your baby’s health. Your body is doing a lot of work as it is, so why not give your immune system a little extra support?
9. Sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are another excellent source of fiber and energy-boosting complex carbohydrates, but the benefits don’t stop there. These hearty root vegetables are loaded with Vitamin C, folate, and beta-carotene (which your body uses to make the all-important nutrient known as Vitamin A). Sweet potatoes also contain potassium, a mineral important in regulating blood pressure, cutting the negative effects of sodium, sustaining energy, and easing muscle cramps.
Soy has received a lot of bad press lately, but the hysteria is overblown: soy is good for you, soy is good for your baby, and you should definitely include it in your diet! Whether you eat edamame, tempeh, miso, tofu, or another minimally processed soy food, you pack in the nutrition your body needs—protein, folate, B vitamins, Vitamin A, and even calcium.
Soy’s versatility also makes it an excellent choice during pregnancy. Snack on lightly seasoned edamame, make tofu scrambles, eat miso soup, blend tofu into your smoothies for a hit of protein, or pour soy milk into your oatmeal for extra calcium. If you purchase prepared soy foods, just remember to check the label for added salt and sugar.