Pregnancy and nutrition – foods to enjoy, foods to avoid

As an expectant mum, your diet plays an essential role in your baby’s growth and wellbeing. While you won’t need to ‘eat for two’ per se, you will need more energy and nutrients during this time – not only for your baby’s health, but for your own.

You’ll need a bit more energy

The amount of extra energy required varies from person to person. Eating intuitively – that is, responding to your body’s hunger cues – is a great way to ensure you’re eating enough, but not overdoing it. As a rough guide, expectant mums may require approximately 1400kJ/day extra in their second trimester and 1900kJ/day extra in their third trimester (that’s not a huge amount!). It is recommended that pregnant women consume these extra kilojoules from nutritious sources, particularly wholegrain breads and cereals (for folate) and lean meat and alternatives (for protein and iron).

Weight gain during pregnancy will vary from person to person and depends on many factors, including your BMI (a weight to height ratio) when you fall pregnant. For a woman with a ‘normal’ BMI (between 18.5 and 24.9), the general recommendation for weight gain is somewhere between 11.5kg and 16kg. Find out more >

Peanut butter and banana on wholegrain bread
One slice of wholegrain bread with a tablespoon of natural peanut butter, topped with banana would provide around 1400kJ plus folate, protein and potassium.

You’ll need these key nutrients in particular

Both mum and baby require a balance of foods from the five food groups to ensure they’re receiving adequate carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals to support growth and development. There are a few key nutrients that are especially important for the baby’s health.

Folate: Essential for the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system, and is particularly important in the first trimester. Folate supplementation is encouraged prior to conception and the first 2-3 months of pregnancy, alongside folate-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, eggs, and breads and cereals (mostly wholegrain).

Iron: Mums produce more red blood cells during pregnancy to meet the needs of their growing baby and the placenta. Iron is essential in red blood cell formation. The richest source of iron is red meat, but is also found in chicken, fish, pork and eggs. Smaller amounts of iron are found in legumes and beans, green leafy vegetables and products with added iron (including some cereals). Eating foods that contain vitamin C (e.g. capsicums and oranges) alongside iron containing foods will help with absorption. Vegetarian and vegan mums will have a higher requirement for iron. It is important that you do not take iron supplements without the guidance of a medical professional.

IodineIodine: Essential for the growth and development of your baby, particularly for the nervous system, iodine is another important nutrient for pregnant women. Iodine is found in seafood, iodine-fortified bread, some dairy products and iodised table salt. As with folate, iodine supplementation is recommended during pregnancy.

Zinc: Another nutrient important for foetal growth and development, zinc is commonly found in foods and generally doesn’t require supplementation. Cereal and grain products, dairy products, meat and seafood are just some of the dietary sources of zinc.

Protein: Your recommended daily intake for protein increases during pregnancy to support the growth of your child. Consuming adequate protein is achievable through a healthy balanced diet containing lean meat and meat alternatives, but may require additional planning for vegans and vegetarians (more detail below).

Avoiding these foods/drinks is the safest option

Mothers and their unborn babies are more susceptible to bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. Unborn babies are also sensitive to toxins like mercury and alcohol. This is why the Australian Dietary Guidelines encourage mothers to avoid high-risk foods and beverages as much as possible.

Avoid alcohol: there is no known ‘safe’ amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and it is therefore recommended that not consuming alcohol is the safest option. Alcohol can harm a developing foetus or breastfeeding baby.

Avoid foods at higher risk of listeria and salmonella contamination, including:

  • soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, feta
  • raw, uncooked and smoked meats and seafood, including deli meats
  • leftovers
  • pre-prepared foods such as salads, sushi, smorgasboards, fresh-pressed juice
  • soft-serve ice cream
  • raw eggs
  • unwashed fruits and vegetables

Avoid foods you’re allergic to.

Limit your intake of foods high in mercury, like large, long-lived fish (e.g. swordfish, sea perch).

I have heard many times during my degree (often from parents with grown children) that they feel the ‘foods to avoid’ recommendations during pregnancy seem over-the-top or hypervigilant. Comments like “I ate XYZ when I was pregnant, and it didn’t harm my kids!” are not uncommon. My response tends to be along the lines of when we know better, we can do better. Our medical understanding of pregnancy nutrition improves from generation to generation, and therefore guidelines also must move with the times. These guidelines exist to support health and reduce harm as much as possible.

Special consideration for pregnant teens, vegetarians and vegans

Pregnant teens have to support the growth of their baby while also supporting their own growth. Pregnant teens will require additional energy and nutrients including calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.

Vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be may require more thorough food planning to ensure they’re meeting requirements for the above nutrients as well as protein, Vitamin B12 and D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and riboflavin. Supplementation could be beneficial, but requires assessment and guidance by a health professional.

In a nutshell

Enjoying a balanced diet that contains a variety of foods from all five food groups each day will likely provide the energy and nutrients you and your baby needs to thrive during pregnancy. Take care with higher risk foods and beverages, and speak with an accredited practicing dietitian or your health professional for individualised advice.

Further reading

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are the best starting point for understanding the foods to enjoy and foods that are best to avoid during your pregnancy. This post aims to provide a quick summary of the ADG recommendations.

Healthy Eating During Your Pregnancy (PDF brochure) – Australian Government


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Peanut butter and banana on wholegrain toast, via Flickr

Beck Watson is a student dietitian at the Queensland University of Technology and a social media marketer through her business, Kin Digital. Kin Nutrition provides a collection of news, recipes, stories, experiences, facts and reviews about the wonderful world of nutrition.

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