You know that eating well is “job one” when you’re pregnant (or hoping to be), but where to start? How can you maximize your diet when you don’t feel like eating much—or when you feel like eating everything!
My list of superfoods for pregnancy below can help guide the way. It’s a downsized list from my book Eating Expectantly, where the list is longer and there’s advice on everything from getting ready for pregnancy, to how to manage morning sickness, to managing heartburn and gaining the right amount of weight.
Calcium is known for building your baby’s bones and teeth—as well as keep your bones strong. But did you know it also helps control blood pressure? While all dairy products supply calcium, potassium and magnesium—nutrients that help with bones and blood pressure—yogurt and other fermented dairy products like kefir and acidophilus milk have an extra benefit. The probiotics (good bacteria) they contain help keep your digestive tract work more efficiently, which can help with heartburn, gas and constipation. It can also help prevent diarrhea. Research also shows that probiotics may help reduce the risk of preeclampsia.
Practice Tip: Greek yogurt has more protein and will keep you feeling more full. Choose a yogurt with the least amount of added sugar, or buy plain and add your own fruit and sweetener.
Beans are budget-friendly but they also pack a powerful nutrient punch. Fiber, folic acid, iron and protein are plentiful in all beans—lentils supply more than half of your fiber needs and almost 1/3 of the iron you need in just 1 cup. Lentils cook more quickly and don’t need to be soaked in advance, making them great for a quick meal.
Practice Point: Eat with a vitamin C containing food to increase iron absorption.
When I was pregnant, I kept a snack stash in my drawer at work and peanut butter was the star of that show. Peanut butter is an economical protein source and very portable. Its protein and healthy fat make it perfect for balancing meals and snacks. Peanuts are rich in biotin, copper,manganese and folate. It’s so easy to grab a spoonful to go with some crackers, an apple or banana.
Practice Point: Choose natural peanut butter in a glass jar. Peanut butter powder works great in smoothies—try one with frozen banana and cocoa. Other nut and seed butters and oils are very healthy too.
Antioxidants are important during pregnancy—and all berries are great sources. Proanthocyanidins, a type of antioxidant that’s plentiful in blueberries, raspberries and cranberries, can help fight inflammation, which is thought to play a role in miscarriages and preeclampsia. Cranberries have a special type of proanthocyanidin, which is thought to help prevent urinary tract infections. Berries are high in fiber—raspberries being the top in category with 10 grams per cup. Fruit may be the new brain food: research suggests that eating 6 servings of fruit daily while pregnant could make your baby smarter at 1 year.
Practice Point: Berries are perfect for hiding the taste of greens in your smoothie. Raspberries contain more antioxidants when ripe—buy at peak ripeness and eat within 1-2 days.
Greens: kale & spinach
Mom always said to eat your veggies—for good reason. Greens have an important nutrient that you may not have heard of—lutein–a carotenoid that’s important for fetal eye development. Lutein and its chemical cousin zeathanthin, are deposited in the retina and protect it from light damage. Kale, spinach and collard greens contain the most lutein. Greens are also great sources of beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber and other antioxidants important for pregnancy.
Practice point: Serve with oil-based dressing or avocado to help your body absorb the lutein and other fat-soluble vitamins.
The green globe of yummy goodness provides a good source of potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper and fiber. Full of healthy monounsaturated fat, avocado is known to be good for cholesterol and also lowers oxidative stress in the body. Avocados are rich in a variety of carotenoids, including lutein.
Practice Point: Put on your sandwich as a condiment, throw some in your smoothie or have it sliced with your eggs in the morning.
Yes, fish really is brain food and if you have to pick one fish to eat while you are pregnant, pick salmon. Salmon has one of the highest levels of omega-3 fats—needed for baby’s brain and visual development. It’s recommended that moms-to-be consume about 300 mg DHA per day. If you want to get that from food, eat about 8 ounces of salmon twice a week.
Practice Point: Make salmon salad just like you do with tuna and eat on a sandwich, on crackers or stuffed in celery or cherry tomatoes. Salmon can be cooked very quickly in the microwave; top with some pesto and cook until opaque.
A top protein source, lean beef provides a good source of more than 10 nutrients. Notably important for pregnancy are iron, zinc, choline and selenium. Beef is versatile—from crockpot chili to grilling for tacos or salads, beef also makes great leftovers.
Practice Point: Lean beef cuts include top sirloin, top round steak, flank steak, bottom round roast and 93% lean ground beef.
Sometimes you just don’t feel like eating—be it nausea or heartburn or just poor appetite. Eggs are a comfort food, yes—but they can also fill many nutrient holes in a mom-to-be’s diet. A great way to get protein, eating eggs also provides choline, a nutrient that helps build the memory center of your baby’s brain. Research shows that most women don’t get enough choline, which also may be linked to higher risk of neural tube defects.
Practice point: You can make quick scrambled eggs in the microwave—in a coffee mug! Keep some hard cooked eggs in your refrigerator to eat as a snack or slice on a salad.
Great things come in tiny packages—this is true for both flax and chia seeds. Just a few teaspoons provide a great source of fiber as well as omega-3 fats. Both seeds contain other antioxidants.
Practice point: Sprinkle on your cereal or in your smoothie for a fiber boost.
If there’s a nutrient most of us don’t get enough of, it’s vitamin E. Just 1 ounce of sunflower seed kernels provide more than 50% of your vitamin E for the day. Sunflower seeds are also rich in magnesium, selenium and copper—minerals that work as antioxidants.
Practice Point: Throw a handful in your smoothie or oatmeal, on your salad, use as a crunchy topping on fish or keep in your purse for a snack.
This nutty kernel, called an ancient grain because it was reportedly eaten thousands of years ago in the Andes of South America, is the only grain that contains a complete source of protein. It’s plentiful in some of the same flavonols that are found in berries, making it helpful in fighting inflammation. Quinoa is gluten free.
Practice Point: Quinoa is cooked like rice and is very versatile: mix with veggies for a pilaf, or make a grain-based salad adding dried cranberries, apricots and vinaigrette.
This book is an amazing guide on what to eat not only during pregnancy, but also before and after! You can find it on Amazon.
Bridget Swinney is a registered dietitian and the award-winning author of Eating Expectantly and Baby Bites. She is “chief mama” at eatrightmama.com