Nutrition for Planning and Preparing for Pregnancy
There is so much advice out there; how do I choose what to eat?
Why are folic acid (or folate) and iron so important?
What is considered "healthy eating" for women who are planning to become pregnant?
What is a serving size?
What foods should I be careful about eating?
As part of a healthy diet, what should I drink?
Is it ok to drink alcohol while I am planning to get pregnant?
what to eat should be based on a balanced diet and the amount of
calories you need to carry out your daily activities. Avoid fad diets
and those that over-emphasize or downplay any of the six main dietary
nutrients: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals.
Healthy eating will help you function at your best and achieve and
maintain a healthy body weight.
part of the revised FDA national dietary guidelines for healthy eating,
there are two specific recommendations for pre-pregnant women that
relate to iron and folate (folic acid):
- Consume adequate synthetic folic acid daily (from fortified foods
or supplements) AND food forms of folic acid from a varied diet.
Whether you are planning to get pregnant or not, you must be sure to get enough folic acid (sometimes called folate).
acid is a B vitamin that helps a baby's neural tube -- the part of the
embryo that becomes the brain and spinal cord -- develop properly. It
is critical to start taking it before conception and to continue taking
it through the third month of pregnancy, when the baby's neural tube is
developing, to prevent birth defects in the spine and skull.
You can get folic acid by taking a multivitamin with 400 micrograms
(mcg) of it daily. You will also find it in fortified breakfast
cereals; citrus fruits and juices; dried peas and beans; and green,
leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard and turnip greens, and
- Eat foods high in heme-iron, iron-rich plant foods, iron-fortified
foods, or foods that facilitate iron absorption, such as vitamin C-rich
is important during pregnancy as it prevents anemia, a condition in
which the body isn't able to produce enough healthy red blood cells.
Developing infants need a high level of red blood cells in order to
receive enough oxygen. And, anemia in the mother can be passed on to
You can get heme-iron by eating food such as red meats, fish, and
poultry (basically, food from animal sources). Iron-rich plant
foods include cooked beans, lentils, and enriched pasta. Many
breakfast cereals are also iron-fortified.
Foods that help iron absorption consist of fruits (oranges, orange
juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, grapefruit) and vegetables (broccoli,
brussels sprouts, tomato, tomato juice, potatoes, and green and red
peppers), and are effective when eaten with iron-rich foods like meat,
fish, and poultry.
two exceptions, healthy eating for pre-pregnant women is the same as
healthy eating for most people of the same age, gender, and physical
activity level. Those exceptions are iron and folate/folic acid.
New national dietary guidelines and a revised Food Pyramid were
released April 2005 by the United States Department of Agriculture
(USDA). Reviewed and revised as necessary every five years, the
guidelines' purpose is to provide advice for healthy Americans about
food choices that promote health and prevent disease.
Current national dietary guidelines are:
- Focus on fruits. Eat a variety of fruits--whether fresh,
frozen, canned, or dried--rather than fruit juice for most of your fruit
choices. For a 2,000-calorie diet, you will need 2 cups of fruit each
day (for example, 1 small banana, 1 large orange, and 1/4 cup of dried
apricots or peaches).
- Vary your veggies. Eat more dark green veggies, such as
broccoli, kale, and other dark leafy greens; orange veggies, such as
carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash; and beans and
peas, such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans
(chick peas), split peas, and lentils. Frozen produce is often as good
for you as fresh since it's frozen immediately after harvest.
- Get your calcium-rich foods. Get 3 cups of low-fat or
fat-free milk--or an equivalent amount of low-fat yogurt and/or low-fat
cheese (1-1/2 ounces of cheese equals 1 cup of milk)--every day. If you
don't or can't consume milk, choose lactose-free milk products and/or
calcium-fortified foods and beverages. The recommended daily allowance
- Make half your grains whole. Eat at least 3 ounces of
whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta every day. One
ounce is about 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of breakfast cereal, or 1/2 cup
of cooked rice or pasta. Look to see that grains such as wheat, rice,
oats, or corn are referred to as "whole" in the list of ingredients.
- Go lean with protein. Choose lean meats and poultry. Bake
it, broil it, or grill it. And vary your protein choices with more
fish, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
- Nosh on nuts. Five ounces a week of nuts is a healthy
addition to any diet – unless you're allergic to them. Stick to
almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts as they have less fat and have more
nutrients. Eat them raw and unsalted...you'll get used to the taste!
- Know the limits on fats, salt, and sugars. Read the
Nutrition Facts label on foods. Look for foods low in saturated fats
and trans fats. Your body needs a certain amount of fat, so you should
not eliminate it totally. Plant oils from nuts, nut butters, olives,
and avocados are good for you. Choose and prepare foods and beverages
with little salt (sodium) and/or added sugars (caloric sweeteners).
Remove the skin and fat from meats and fish.
- Understand your fats. Look for foods low in saturated fats,
trans fats, and cholesterol to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Five percent of the daily value (DV) or less is low; 20% of the daily
value (DV) or more is high. Most of the fats you eat should be
polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Keep total fat intake between
20% - 35% of all the calories you take in each day.
- Reduce sodium (salt), increase potassium. Research shows
that eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about 1 teaspoon of
salt) per day may reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Most of the
sodium people eat comes from processed foods, not from the saltshaker.
Also, look for foods high in potassium (such as bananas), which
counteracts some of sodium's effects on blood pressure.
- Don't sugarcoat it. Since sugars contribute calories with
few, if any, nutrients, look for foods and beverages low in added
sugars. Read the ingredient list and make sure that added sugars are
not among the first few ingredients. Some names for added sugars
include sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple
syrup, and fructose.
- Check servings and calories. Look at the serving size and
how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the
servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the
percent of daily values.
- Make your calories count. Look at the calories on the label
and compare them with the nutrients you are also getting. Decide
whether the food is worth eating. When one serving of a single food
item has over 400 calories per serving, it is high in calories.
A serving size is
usually described in terms of numbers of cups, teaspoons, tablespoons,
ounces, or slices. A serving is not what you are served! Our tendency
to severely misjudge serving size has been dubbed "portion distortion."
Though the name is cute, the problem is not. In fact, it is cause for
serious concern since it leads many of us to overeat.
Here are healthy one-portion servings for women:
- Whole grains
- breads: 1 slice of bread, 1/2 English muffin, 1/2 hamburger bun, 1/2 bagel, 1 tortilla
- pasta: 1/2 cup cooked
- rice and other grains: 1/2 cup cooked
- cereal: 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal, 1/2 cup cooked
- Plant oils
- oils: 1 tablespoon
- fatty plant foods: about 15 nuts, 1 tablespoon nut butters, about 20 medium olives, 1/3 of an avocado
- Vegetables and Fruit
- raw: 1 piece or 1 cup
- canned or cooked: 1/2 cup
- dried: 1 ounce
- juice: 6 ounces
- Poultry, fish and eggs
- poultry: 3 ounces
- fish: 3 ounces
- eggs: 1
- milk: 1 cup
- cheese: 1 ounce
- yogurt: 1 cup
- soy milk: 1 cup
- calcium fortified orange juice: 1 cup
- tofu: 3 ounces
- Red Meat
careful about eating certain fish, including shark, swordfish, king
mackerel and tilefish. Sometimes these fish have levels of
methylmercury that can damage the nervous system of a fetus.
Although almost all fish and shellfish contain small amounts of
mercury, you can enjoy some with lower mercury levels (shrimp, canned
light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish) in moderation (no more than
12 ounces a week, according to the FDA and EPA). Because albacore (or
white) tuna or tuna steaks are higher in mercury than canned light
tuna, it's recommended that you eat no more than 6 ounces a week.
Do not eat raw or undercooked seafood, poultry and meat.
Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables.
You should drink about 8 cups of non-alcoholic, noncaffeinated liquids each day.
Plain water is best, but you can also get the liquid you need from
soups and juices (though, be careful…you'll add calories with these
Drinks that have caffeine, and that includes many sodas, have a
diuretic effect – meaning they will cause increased urine output. This
is true of alcohol as well.
is best not to drink alcohol while you are planning to get pregnant.
The first 8 weeks of your pregnancy are a particularly vulnerable time
for your fetus as its vital organs are being developed. Because you may
not know you are pregnant for a few weeks, or sometimes months, after
conception, it is best to abstain from alcohol and avoid this serious
risk. In addition, evidence shows alcohol may inhibit ovulation,
perhaps making it more difficult to conceive.
© 2015 Childbirth Connection. All rights reserved.
Childbirth Connection is a national not-for-profit organization founded in 1918 as Maternity Center Association. Our mission is to improve the quality of maternity care through research, education, advocacy and policy. Childbirth Connection promotes safe, effective and satisfying evidence-based maternity care and is a voice for the needs and interests of childbearing families.
Most recent page update: 10/26/2012