Pregnancy is an exciting time, but it can also be a time filled with uncertainty. Proper prenatal nutrition is essential for both you and your baby, but with so much conflicting information about what to eat for optimal health in general, determining what to eat for your pregnancy can feel daunting.
As a base, you need approximately 300 extra calories per day to support your pregnancy but it’s important to make sure those extra calories come from nutrient-dense sources. What does that mean? It means focusing on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and quality sources of protein while limiting sugar, artificial ingredients, and other sources of “empty calories.”
A well-balanced diet is key throughout pregnancy, but each trimester has unique nutritional requirements. From first trimester, to second, to third, your baby has different needs to help them grow in different ways just like your body has different needs throughout your monthly cycle.
Water-soluble vitamins B & C should be a focal point in the first trimester. Vitamin B9, also known as folate, is crucial in the early stages of pregnancy as it helps lower the risk of neural tube defects. Vitamin C works to support your immune system in the first trimester, which is often taxed in early pregnancy.
Folate: dark leafy greens, citrus, asparagus, broccoli, lentils, legumes, and grass-fed liver.
Vitamin C: citrus, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables.
Although vitamins and supplements should never be a replacement for a nutrient-rich diet, many women find it challenging to consume enough high quality nutrition early in pregnancy when nausea is at its peak. If you’re not confidently consuming enough folate through whole food sources, then you need to supplement, especially during the first trimester. Please note that folate is the natural form of B9, which is better utilized by the body than folic acid, which is the synthetic form found in most supplements.
Blood volume increases by 40-50% during the second trimester so iron becomes an essential nutrient during this phase. Iron is used to transport oxygen to all parts of your body as well as to your baby. Vitamin C continues to be important in the second trimester as it increases iron absorption during this time of rapid blood volume expansion.
Iron: (Heme sources which are more easily absorbed by the body) clams, oysters, egg yolk, salmon, beef, lamb, and chicken.
(Non-heme sources which the body absorbs less of) lentils, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
Most people are able to get sufficient iron by eating a varied and balanced diet so talk to your healthcare provider before adding an iron supplement as these can be dangerous if you already have good levels. If you aren’t consuming enough foods rich in vitamin C, consider supplementing with a real food source of vitamin C, like acerola cherry or camu camu, which are better absorbed than synthetic ascorbic acid.
Higher levels of iron and protein are still crucial during the third trimester to help maintain increased blood volume, support the growth and cellular development of your baby, and ensure a healthy placenta. But this is also when your baby’s bones become more dense, making calcium a critical nutrient. Fat-soluble vitamins D3 and K2 help support the formation of strong bones.
Essential fatty acids like omega-3 also play a big role in the third trimester as they support the development of your baby’s brain, which is made up of 60% fat. Women who consume omega-3’s during pregnancy are at lower risk of postpartum depression and the addition of healthy fats during the third trimester help prepare you for breastfeeding.
Calcium: broccoli, collard greens, spinach, turnip greens, kale, beet greens, almonds, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, sardines, salmon, organic yogurt, milk, and kefir.
D3: herring, salmon, sardines, egg yolks, and sun exposure.
K2: fermented sauerkraut, egg yolks, grass-fed butter, chicken, and beef.
Omega-3: fatty fish such as mackerel or salmon, marine algae, and spirulina.
If you are unable to consume enough nutrient-dense foods to support your pregnancy you may want to talk to your doctor about supplementation. However, if possible, try to get your nutrients from whole food sources. The vitamins and minerals found in food are better absorbed and utilized by your body than synthetic vitamin supplements.
Proper hydration is important throughout your pregnancy so limit soda and sugary beverages and focus on drinking plenty of water. Try to “eat the rainbow” each day so that you get a variety of vitamins and minerals from real food but don’t stress if that’s not always possible. The truth is, sometimes you just have to eat what works for you or what you can stomach on any given day. The most important thing is that you give yourself some grace and don’t berate yourself if everyday doesn’t look “perfect” from a nutritional standpoint. It’s a (9 month) marathon, not a sprint!
Looking to take these nutrients and put them into action? Check out this list of 7 best pregnancy cookbooks to explore. (Our advice, check them out from the library instead of having to buy yet another book for becoming a mother!)
Erin Entlich is a certified yoga instructor, personal trainer, holistic health coach, and writer. She believes doing good starts with feeling good, which is why she loves helping people weave movement, mindfulness, and healthy eating into their daily lives. Find out more at www.erinentlich.com.