Pregnancy makes specific nutritional demands on your body. So if you are trying to get pregnant–now is the ideal time to learn about which foods nutrient-rich foods you should be eating more of, and which foods you should be avoiding.
Basic healthy eating advice
To meet the average nutrient needs of both pregnant and non-pregnant women, the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends target number of daily serves from each of the five core food groups, depending on whether a woman is pregnant or not. Checkout how your usual intake compares.
Recommended Daily Servings from the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
- Vegetables and legumes/beans: 5 servings per day. One serve = 75g or half a cup cooked green or orange vegetables, one cup of raw salad vegetables, half a medium potato, one tomato.
- Fruit: 2 servings per day. One serve = 150g or one medium piece (apple, banana, orange), two small pieces (apricots, kiwi fruit), one cup diced or canned fruit.
- Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain or high-fibre varieties: 6 (non-pregnant) to 8.5 servings per day (pregnant). One serve = one slice of bread, half a cup of cooked rice, pasta or porridge, one-quarter of a cup muesli, three wholegrain crispbreads.
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans: 2.5 (non-pregnant) to 3.5 servings per day (pregnant). One serve = 500-600kJ, for example, 65g cooked lean meat, 80g cooked lean poultry, 100g cooked fish, two eggs, 170g tofu, 30g nuts, one cup of cooked beans.
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese or alternatives, mostly reduced fat: 2.5 servings per day. One serve = 500-600kJ, for example, 250ml milk, 200g yoghurt, two slices (40g) of cheese.
Key nutrients you need during pregnancy
In Australia, most people do not eat like the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommendations. But having a variety of nutrient-rich foods, prior to and during pregnancy is important.
Here’s a quick guide to what these nutrients do, and where you can find them:
- Protein is needed for growth and to support the development of the developing baby. Good sources include lean meat, chicken, seafood, dairy products, nuts, eggs and legumes, including baked beans, chickpeas, lentil and kidney beans.
- Fibre helps prevent constipation. Transit time in the digestive tract slows down during pregnancy, plus some iron supplements can trigger constipation. Good sources of fibre include wholemeal or wholegrain breads, high fibre cereals, oats, vegetables and fruit.
- Folate is needed to make cells that make up body tissues. It also helps prevent neural tube defects occurring in the developing baby, such as spina bifida. Good sources include fortified bread and breakfast cereal, wheatgerm, green leafy vegetables, legumes, tomatoes, strawberries and oranges.
- Iodine is needed for the production of thyroid hormone which helps regulate metabolism. It is also needed for foetal brain development. Good sources include bread fortified made with iodised salt (most commercial breads use iodised salt), canned salmon and tuna, other fish.
- Calcium is needed to optimise bone mass. Good sources include dairy foods, fortified soy milks, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and canned fish with bones.
- Iron is needed to make red blood cells that can carry oxygen through the mother and developing baby during pregnancy. Good sources include red meat, chicken, fish, fortified cereals, egg yolks, green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts. Note that vegetarian sources are better absorbed when eaten at the same time as a food high in vitamin C, such as fresh fruit, lemon or lime juice or vegetables such as capsicum, broccoli or tomatoes.
- Zinc is needed for growth of the developing baby and to help the body ward off infections. Good sources include meat, oysters (do not eat them raw in pregnancy), eggs, seafood, nuts, tofu, miso, legumes, wheat germ, wholegrain foods.
Women planning or in early pregnancy are likely to need folic acid and iodine supplements. During pregnancy, multivitamin supplements may be recommended for some women, particularly when a woman is on a pre-existing special diet, or a diet to limit weight gain or has other health problems or addictions. Vegetarians and pregnant adolescents may need supplements. For personalised advice see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Alcohol is especially dangerous to the developing baby during early pregnancy, so it is best to avoid alcohol completely as soon as you are planning pregnancy. Talk to your doctor if you need help to manage this.
Listeria risk in pregnancy
Once pregnant, a woman’s immune system is weakened. This makes you more susceptible to food poisoning. Hence, it is extra important to always wash your hands before and after handling and preparing foods.
Listeria is a bug that can cause food poisoning and it is found in some common foods. Pregnant women should avoid the following foods to reduce the chance of getting food poisoning, which can be harmful to pregnant women and their baby.
- Avoid pre-packaged cold meats, deli meats and sandwich bars. Instead choose home-cooked meat or cheese, eggs or canned fish and make it into homemade sandwiches.
- Avoid ready-to-eat pre-cooked chicken pieces. Instead choose home-cooked chicken or hot take-away whole chicken or large pieces, but eat it immediately while still hot.
- Avoid raw and chilled seafood. This includes oysters, sashimi or sushi, smoked salmon, ready-to-eat peeled prawns, prawn cocktails, sandwich fillings, and prawn salads.
- Avoid pre-prepared or pre-packaged salads and those from salad bars or buffets. Instead, choose freshly prepared homemade salads, fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid soft, semi-soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, ricotta, feta and blue cheese. Instead choose hard cheeses such as Cheddar or tasty, processed cheese, or plain cottage cheese if pre-packaged by the manufacturer.
- Avoid soft serve ice cream and unpasteurised ‘raw’ dairy products. Instead choose packaged frozen ice cream and pasteurised dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, custard.
- Take extra care with foods served cold or at room temperature and avoid buffets. Listeria can live at low temperatures. Cooking does kill listeria but the food needs to be heated until steam rises of it.
Mercury and fish
Fish and seafood are important sources of protein and minerals and are a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which play an important role in the baby’s developing central nervous system, the brain and retina in eyes. Current advice on fish during pregnancy is to not eat shark (flake) or billfish (swordfish, broadbill and marlin) and to limit Orange Roughy (deep sea perch) or catfish to once per week.
Our research found that pregnant Australian women eat less fish than is recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. We estimated that weekly exposure to mercury from eating two to three serves of Australian fish a week would be well below the targets. Pregnant women in Australia can safely eat fish, if it is caught in Australian waters, including canned salmon and tuna up to two to three times a week.
Find out more
If you have a medical condition or health issues that means you need more specific advice, ask to be referred to an Accredited Practising Dietitian for personalised nutrition advice. Visit the ‘Find an APD’ section of the Dietitians Association of Australia website.