Eating for two can be a nerve-wracking responsibility, especially with so much conflicting information.
Is it important to eat enough fish, or does it contain too much mercury? Do you need meat for protein, or is it too fatty? Are eggs okay, or do they have too much cholesterol?
It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and dive into the nearest bag of candy bars. But there are lots of ways to ensure that you and your baby are both getting the nutrients you both need.
Here’s advice from nutrition experts on their top pregnancy foods. You don’t need to like or eat them all, but pick and choose your favorites to give your pregnancy a nutritional boost.
“It’s amazing what you get in one egg for only about 90 calories,” says Elizabeth Ward, dietitian and author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.
In addition to more than 12 vitamins and minerals, eggs contain lots of quality protein, which is essential for pregnancy.
“Your baby’s cells are growing at an exponential rate, and every cell is made of protein,” Ward explains. “Plus, as a pregnant woman, you have your own protein needs.”
Eggs are also rich in choline, which promotes your baby’s overall growth and brain health, while helping prevent neural tube defects. Some eggs even contain omega-3 fats, important for both brain and vision development. (Brands that have omega-3s will probably state it on the label. Look for DHA-enriched eggs because those contain the most beneficial form of omega-3s.)
As for the egg’s bad rap about cholesterol? Not warranted, says Ward. It turns out that eating saturated fat does much more damage to your cholesterol level than eating the cholesterol naturally found in food.
And while eggs are high in cholesterol, they’re also relatively low in saturated fat, with only about 1 1/2 grams per egg.
“Healthy women with normal blood cholesterol can consume one to two eggs a day as part of a balanced diet low in saturated fat,” Ward says. But if cholesterol is a concern for you, substitute egg whites for whole eggs.
Need more convincing? Eggs are cheap, easy, quick, and versatile. When you’re too exhausted to cook a full meal, a couple of hard-boiled or scrambled eggs are just the ticket.
Not only is salmon rich in high-quality protein, says Ward, but it’s also an exceptionally good source of omega-3 fats, which are good for your baby’s development – and may help boost your mood. And unlike swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and shark, salmon has low amounts of methylmercury, a compound that can be harmful to your baby’s developing nervous system.
Just remember that even for salmon and other low-mercury fish, such as canned light tuna and pollock, the FDA recommends eating no more than 12 ounces per week to avoid ingesting too much mercury.
Navy beans, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas … there are so many to choose from. “Beans contain the most fiber and protein of all the vegetables,” says Ward.
You already know that it’s important to get enough protein during pregnancy, but you may not yet realize that fiber could become your new best friend. When you’re pregnant, your gastrointestinal tract slows down, putting you at risk for constipation and hemorrhoids. Fiber can help prevent and relieve these problems.
In addition, says Ward, food that contains fiber tends to be rich in nutrients. This is certainly true of beans, which are good sources of iron, folate, calcium, and zinc.
Sweet potatoes get their orange color from carotenoids, plant pigments that are converted to vitamin A in our bodies, says Ward.
Although consuming too much “preformed” vitamin A (found in animal sources, such as liver, milk, and eggs) can be dangerous, carotenoids are a different type. They’re converted to vitamin A only as needed, so there’s no need to restrict your consumption of vitamin A-rich fruits and veggies.
Sweet potatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, folate, and fiber. And like beans, they’re inexpensive and versatile. “Cook extra and save them to slice up later as a snack,” Ward suggests.
Popcorn and other whole grains
Yes, you read that right. Popcorn is a whole grain. “People love it when I tell them that!” says Ward.
Whole grains are important in pregnancy because they’re high in fiber and nutrients, including vitamin E, selenium, and phytonutrients (plant compounds that protect cells).
But don’t stop at popcorn: There are lots of other whole grains out there, from oatmeal to barley. Fluffy, nutty-tasting quinoa is one of Ward’s favorites.
“Whole grain quinoa is easy to make and is very high in nutrients, particularly protein, making it a superfood in and of itself,” she says.
“Walnuts are one of the richest sources of plant-based omega-3s,” says dietitian Kate Geagan, author of Go Green, Stay Lean. “A handful of walnuts is a great choice for an on-the-run snack or an addition to a salad.”
While plant-based omega-3s don’t provide much of the DHA that will benefit your baby, they’re still good for both of you. Walnuts are also a good source of protein and fiber.
Greek yogurt typically has twice the protein of regular yogurt, making it one of Geagan’s favorite pregnancy foods. And any kind of yogurt is a great source of calcium, which is vital in a pregnancy diet. If you don’t take in enough calcium, the limited amount you have will go to your baby, says Geagan, depleting the calcium in your bones.
“The goal during pregnancy is to make sure you provide everything your baby needs without sacrificing your own health and nutrition,” she explains. “Calcium will help keep your own bones intact while laying down a healthy skeleton for your baby.”
Dark green, leafy vegetables
Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other green leafy vegetables are loaded with vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins A, C, and K, as well as the all-important folate. They’ve also been found to promote eye health, Geagan says.
Meat is an excellent source of high-quality protein, says dietitian Karin Hosenfeld of North Dallas Nutrition. “Look for lean meats with the fat trimmed off,” she says. “When buying red meat in particular, look for cuts that are around 95 to 98 percent fat free.”
Beef and pork stand out among meats because they contain choline in addition to protein, says Ward.
Don’t eat deli meats or hot dogs, though, unless they’re heated until steaming hot. There’s a small risk of passing bacteria and parasites, such as listeria, toxoplasma, or salmonella, from the meat to your baby, says Mayo Clinic obstetrician Mary Marnach.
Colorful fruits and veggies
Eating plenty of green, red, orange, yellow, purple, and white fruits and vegetables ensures that you and your baby get a variety of nutrients. “Each color group provides different vitamins and minerals,” explains dietitian Jodi Greebel, owner of Citrition, a nutrition counseling service in New York.
Hosenfeld points out another advantage of eating across the fruit and veggie spectrum: “During the later stages of pregnancy, the baby ‘tastes’ the foods you eat through the amniotic fluid,” she says. “So if you expose your baby to a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables in the womb, you’ll increase the chance that your baby will recognize and accept those flavors later on.”