What to eat when pregnant: the truth and the myths

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is even more crucial when you’re pregnant – for you and your baby. Here’s what you need to know…

What to eat when pregnant

When you see that positive on the pregnancy test, you don’t suddenly need to go on a special diet. Barring a few exceptions, pregnancy food is the same as the stuff you normally put on your plate. But it is important to go for a variety of different foods each day so that you and your baby get a balance.

Here are some basic dietary guidelines:

  • Eat foods rich in fibre.
  • Base meals around starchy foods, like potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, choosing wholegrain where possible.
  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
  • Go easy on fried or high-calorie foods and drinks, and sweet foods that are high in sugars and fats.
  • Make sure you don’t skip breakfast.
  • Watch portion sizes and how often you’re eating.

See the NHS Eating Well Guide for more info. You also might be eligible for free milk, fruit, vegetables and vitamin supplements through a government scheme called Healthy Start.

Check out our article about which vitamins you need to supplement in pregnancy.  For a guide on which foods to avoid when pregnant, head here.

Myth one: eating for two

No matter what your auntie Joan tells you, there’s no need to eat for two when pregnant, even if you’re expecting multiples. Pregnant women need just 200 extra calories and even that is only in the last trimester.

Unfortunately, a tablespoon of olive oil, a small matchbox-sized piece of cheese or a banana are all 100 calories (NHS Choices, 2018a). So not quite such a large chunk of cake.

Morning sickness versus healthy eating

There’s no doubt about it, morning sickness can genuinely affect your day-to-day life. Plus, how much food you’re managing to keep down – and what type.

For example if all you can stomach is toast, this might make you panic but don’t worry: morning sickness doesn’t put your baby at any increased risk. Morning sickness usually clears up by weeks 16 to 20 of your pregnancy.

If you can’t keep any food or drink down, this could be a symptom of a severe form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum. This affects around 1% of pregnant women. It can be serious, and there’s a chance you could become dehydrated or malnourished from it.

Pregnant women need just 200 extra calories, and only in the last trimester

Contact your GP or midwife immediately if you:

  • have very dark-coloured urine or don’t wee for more than eight hours
  • are unable to keep food or fluids down for 24 hours
  • feel severely weak, dizzy or faint when standing up
  • have stomach pain
  • have a high temperature (fever) of 38°C or above
  • vomit blood
  • have lost weight.
  • In these cases, you might need specialist treatment, sometimes even in hospital.

For useful information on pregnancy sickness and coping strategies, please see the Pregnancy Sickness Support website.

Myth two: you can't be a vegetarian or vegan when pregnant

Incorrect. You can stay veggie or vegan when you’re expecting. You’ll just have to work harder to make sure you get the nutrients you need for you and your baby.

The main issue for vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be is that you get enough iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D (all mainly found in meat and fish). If you are vegetarian or vegan, talk to your midwife or doctor about how you can get all the nutrients you need.

Some good advice for vegetarians for starters includes:

  • Iron: for vegetarians, eggs are a good source. Vegetarians and vegans can choose pulses, dark green vegetables, wholemeal bread, iron-fortified breakfast cereals and dried fruit.
  • Vitamin B12: for vegetarians, milk, cheese and eggs are good sources. For vegetarians and vegans, good sources are fortified breakfast cereals, fortified unsweetened soya drinks and a load of Marmite on your morning toast. Vegan sources are limited so you might also need a vitamin B12 supplement.
  • Vitamin D: for vegetarians, good sources are egg yolks. For vegetarians and vegans, sources include vitamin D-fortified foods, like some breakfast cereals and most fat spreads. Vitamin D is found only in a small number of foods. That means pregnant and breastfeeding women should consider taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D as a supplement daily. This is particularly important over winter.
  • Calcium: vegans must make sure they get enough calcium as they are not getting it from dairy. For vegans, good sources include dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks, bread, calcium-set tofu, sesame seeds, tahini and dried fruit.
  • Iodine: meeting the higher iodine requirements of pregnancy can be difficult if you do not eat iodine-rich foods like dairy products and fish. Vegans are particularly at risk of iodine deficiency so might consider taking supplements that contain 140 to 150 micrograms of iodine.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.