Eating well in pregnancy
Most foods and drinks are safe to eat in pregnancy, but there are some you should be careful with or avoid. See the Foods to Avoid NHS page for further information. It is advised that you do not drink alcohol whilst pregnant.
A nutritious, balanced and varied diet contributes significantly to good health. A balanced, good diet is especially important if you’re pregnant as your baby relies on you to provide the right balance of nutrients to help them grow and develop properly. It will also help you to stay well whilst you are pregnant.
Eating a nutritious diet can improve general wellbeing, reduce the risk of conditions including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis (thin bones).
But what does a nutritious diet look like?
Except for breast milk as baby food, no single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and work properly. For this reason, our diets should contain a wide variety of different foods, to help us get the wide range of nutrients that our bodies need. This is illustrated by the UK’s healthy eating model - the Eatwell Guide.
With so much information around about how to eat well, it can be confusing to know what information is right. Use these principles to help:
Our diets should be made up of wholesome, natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, eggs, meat, nuts, legumes and dairy (i.e. unsweetened yoghurt and cheese). Try to reduce the amount of highly processed foods in your diet.
Natural foods are rich in nutrients (the vitamins, minerals, fibre and other things our bodies need to function). Highly processed foods and drinks produced in factories often contain additives such as colours, emulsifiers, preservatives or ingredients we do not find at home. They can be calorie dense with high levels of added sugar, salt and saturated fats. Examples of these highly processed foods are pizza, fried chicken, chocolate pudding with very few fruits and vegetables and very little fibre. Whilst they may be convenient, they do not contribute to a balanced, nutritious diet made of wholesome food.
How can we make healthier choices?
There are lots of easy ways we can get more wholesome, nutritious food into our diets and this doesn't need to be expensive.
- Shop smart - Use supermarket budget ranges for items such as tinned and fresh fruit and vegetables, pasta and rice or shop locally at markets and greengrocers.
- Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables - those grown in the UK and in season will often cost less and will taste better too.
- Make swaps. You may be surprised to know that making a Bolognese sauce from scratch is really easy - and often much tastier than the sauces bought off the shelf in jars too. Curries and casserole sauces can be made from scratch too.
- When you go shopping next time ask yourself: why am I choosing this food? How will it nourish my body and mind? How does the ingredient list look?
- Snack on wholesome, nutritious food. Reach for a small handful of nuts or some natural yoghurt and fruit, or even some homemade popcorn when you are feeling peckish. Some snacks ideas that are easy to make at home or carry in your lunch box:
(a) 125g low fat natural yogurt with small handful of blueberries
(b) 1 apple and ½ tablespoon of peanut butter
(c) cottage cheese and tomatoes on a rice cake
(d) banana on toast
(e) red pepper sticks with homemade or reduced-fat hummus
(f) 3 dried apricots and 8 whole almonds
(g) ¼ of an avocado on 1 crispbread
(h) 1 crumpet with 1 teaspoon of low fat spread
(i) 150 ml glass of milk with 1 tablespoon of raisins
(j) 1 boiled egg with 1 chopped tomato and handful of spinach leaves
(k) 2 dhokri, steamed gujarati snack with cucumber & tomato salad
(l) 1 theplas (gujarati flatbreads) with low fat natural yogurt or mixed salad
(m) boiled chickpeas, ready to eat chickpeas with tomato & coriander salad
We have all heard the rhyme sing a rainbow, but how about eat a rainbow?
Fruits and vegetables are particularly colourful and so by eating more vegetables and fruit, you’ll naturally embrace a broad colour palette, like a rainbow. Plus, you’re more likely to enjoy eating an attractive meal.
Fruit and vegetables should be a large, key part of everyone's diet because they are packed with vitamins, mineral, antioxidants, often high in fibre and a variety of phytochemicals. These things are all VITAL for good health. In this, they support all of our body's growth, repair and contribute to disease prevention. Whilst government advice suggests at least 5 portions a day, there is emerging research to suggest 7, 8, 9 or even 10 portions a day could be beneficial. Whilst tinned, frozen, dried and juices all can contribute to your fruit and veg intake, it is best to limit the amount of dried and juice due to their higher natural sugar content. Fruits are higher in natural sugars, and so ensuring you eat a good mix of vegetables and fruit will keep your intake balanced and nutritious.
This infomercial from the British Heart Foundation demonstrates the benefits that a colourful diet of fruit and vegetables can have for your body.
When you think of sugar you might only think of the sweet cubed stuff that grandmas spoon in their tea. Whilst this is a type of sugar, understanding what sugar really is, where it is found and the impact it has on our bodies is more complex.
Sugar is the primary source of energy for our bodies. Some carbohydrates like starch, found for example in pasta or bread, are broken down into sugars during digestion and then used by the cells to produce energy. If you eat an excess of sugar, the levels of sugar in your blood will rise. This will cause your liver to secrete insulin (a chemical that is designed to bring the levels of sugar in your blood back to normal). It is this process that signals to your body to start to store sugar - the only way our body can store energy (sugar) is as fat, and this is why eating too much sugar will make you put on weight.
Over time, your body stops responding to the insulin that your pancreas is producing. At first, your pancreas will try to make more insulin to keep up with the added demand but eventually your pancreas can not make enough insulin and so your blood sugar levels remain high. This is also known as Type 2 diabetes.
While pregnant, eating too much sugar can increase your risk of developing gestational diabetes too.
This is why we should not eat too much sugar!
Where is sugar found and how do I cut back?
Free or added sugar:
Sugar is found in a number of different forms. Firstly, there is the sugar that is added to the food we eat, such as in your grandma's tea or in cakes, fizzy drink, many table sauces, biscuits, ice cream etc. Sometimes this is referred to as "free" or added sugar. This sugar should be avoided because is of no nutritional benefit. These sugars are often responsible for the weight gain and medical problems described above. Click here to see how much sugar is added to some of our foods.
Sometimes it can be difficult to see on food packaging when sugar has been added because it isn't always listed as simply sugar. The British Heart Foundation have put together a helpful list of some of the other names for sugar to help make it clearer for you to know what is in your food.
Here is a video to help explain about free and added sugar.
Tips to cut down on free and added sugar:
- If you like fizzy drinks, why not try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water and choosing diet versions where possible.
- If you take sugar in hot drinks or add sugar to your breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until you can cut it out altogether or try using a low calorie sweetener.
- Like sugar or honey in your porridge? Why not try mashing up a banana with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Rather than spreading jam, marmalade or honey on your toast, try a scrape of low-fat spread or sliced banana instead.
- Instead of cakes, chocolate, biscuits and desserts opt for some fruit. Why not try pineapple, bananas or grapes as these have a naturally sweet taste.
- Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup.
- Select breakfast cereals which are not coated in sugar or honey.
- Go for fruit scones or fruit loaf instead of croissants, pastries or cakes.
- Swap biscuits for oatcakes, oat biscuits, or unsalted rice cakes, which also provide fibre
Naturally occurring sugar:
Fruit, vegetables and milk all contain natural sugar. Fruit can be high in natural sugar but is also very dense in other nutrients and is very good for our health. So whilst we should be aware of our portion size, fruit is a vital part of our diets and we should aim to eat a variety of fruit every day. It is recommended that we eat at least 5 different portions of fruit and vegetables every day - if not more!
Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Carbohydrates are a fantastic energy source. Whilst "very low carbohydrate diets" are not generally recommended, as a nation, our portion sizes of carbohydrates have increased dramatically. It is very important to consider your portions of carbohydrates, and to choose the less processed and refined, whole grain options to increase our fibre intake.
Making better choices
When choosing your measured portions of carbohydrates it is always important to consider their other nutritional benefits.
- Whole grain options have a higher fibre content and so are a healthier choice for keeping our tummies healthy and for keeping us full because they take longer to be digested. Example of whole grain options are whole grain bread, whole grain pastas and brown rice.
- Watch out for added sugar in your diet. For example, many breakfast cereals have large amounts of added sugar. Instead think about whole grain options such as porridge oats for a breakfast.
- Better still, think about adding protein (such as eggs, nuts, unsweetened yoghurt or smoked salmon) to your whole grain breakfast option for the ultimate "keep you fuller for longer" power.
Fats are very high in energy content and so it is vital that we consume the right fats as controlled portions for a health diet. They carry fat soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. Our bodies cannot make essential fatty acids so we need to supply our bodies with this from our diets.
Eating too much fat, or the wrong balance of fats can be unhealthy. So rather than choosing low-fat options, we should think about choosing to eat foods that contain "beneficial fats" and limit those foods containing fats which are unbeneficial or even detrimental to our health.
Foods containing beneficial fats (also referred to as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats)
- Olive oil
- Nuts and natural, unsweetened, unsalted nut butters
- Oily fish (such as salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel) (aim to eat 2 portions of these a week)
- Seeds (such as chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds)
Eaten in small quantity, these foods lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. They will also contribute to keeping you fuller for longer.
Red meat, full fat dairy products (such as cheese and unsweetened yoghurt) and butter contain saturated fat. They do not have the same health benefits as the "beneficial fats" listed above but do have other nutritional value. Red meat for example if full of protein, and cheese is high in vitamins and calcium. Therefore these can form a small part of your diet, but do not need to be eaten every day. Consider trimming the fat from red meat, and read the food labels to ensure that you are having less saturated fat in your diet.
What fats should I avoid?
Foods containing hydrogenated oil should be avoided. This is usually commercially fried foods, packaged snack foods, doughnuts, cakes and pizza. These are the foods containing the fats that are detrimental to our health; they raise cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. High intakes of the wrong fats are associated with weight gain, which can also increase the likelihood of developing diabetes.
Dietary fibre is part of plants we eat which don't get digested in our small intestines. Instead, it is broken down by bacteria in your large intestine. Once broken down in your large intestine, dietary fibre increases the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
What can fibre do for my body?
- Improve immune system
- Decrease constipation
- Reduce inflammation in the gut
- Associated with a lower risk of heart and circulatory disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
For these reasons, fibre is a very important part of our diets.
How do I add more fibre to my diet?
Choose fibre rich foods from a variety of sources including whole grains, fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and pulses. 30g of fibre a day is recommended for an adult. See here for easy ways to get more fibre in your diet.
Protein is a macronutrient (a type of nutrient) found in foods such as meat, dairy, fish, pulses, beans and eggs. Protein is essential for the body to grow muscle, repair and stay healthy. Protein will also fill you up for longer so it is a good idea to eat protein with every meal.
For example, eat eggs for breakfast, try tuna for lunch and tuck in to chicken or lentils for dinner.
It is a good idea to include more plants in your diet. See here for some ideas to include plant based sources of protein.
To quench your thirst, water is unbeatable and you should aim to drink at least 2 litres of water a day, and more if you are exercising. Many juice drinks and fizzy pop are packed full of sugar, which contribute to tooth decay and increase you risk of diabetes and weight gain. Where possible to stick to sugar-free drinks, or better still, stick to water. You could consider adding frozen fruit or slices of lemon for a natural way to flavour your water.
Find some healthy recipe ideas to try...
Here are some recipes that you might like to try for a healthy breakfast.
- Porridge oats made with semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, topped with fruit and a few nuts
- A slice of wholemeal toast with 2 scrambled eggs
- Baked beans on wholemeal toast
- Low fat greek yoghurt topped with fruit and a few nuts
- Smoked salmon on a bagel with low fat cream cheese
- Wheat biscuits with fruit and semi-skimmed, or skimmed milk
- Egg omelette with ham and spinach and 30g of grated cheddar cheese
Many breakfast cereals and toppings for toast are very high in sugar so think about using the "traffic light" code on packets so you are aware of how much sugar, fat and salt is in your foods.
Other breakfast recipes can be found here.
Here are some recipes that you might like to try for a healthy lunch.
- Vegetable soup with wholemeal bread
- Chopped vegetable salad with chicken and low fat salad dressing (the more colourful your salad the more variety of vitamins and minerals you will have!)
- Tuna and salad wholemeal pitta with chopped vegetables
- A small baked potato topped with baked beans
- 75g of wholemeal pasta, stirred through with low fat cream cheese and salad
Find some more lunch recipes here.
Here are some recipes that you might like to try for a healthy dinner.
- Baked potato topped with tuna and salad
- Fish with mash potatoes and mixed vegetables
- Chicken, pepper and onion tortilla wraps topped with low fat yoghurt and salad
- Vegetable and kidney bean wholemeal pasta bake with a small amount of grated cheddar cheese
Many shop bought sauces and packets are full of sugar and therefore making sauces for things such as bolognese and curry from fresh ingredients at home is more healthy and will encourage you to eat more vegetables too!
Find some more dinner inspiration here.
Healthy Start Scheme
If you’re more than 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under 4, you may be entitled to get help to buy healthy food and milk.
British Nutrition Foundation
NHS Eat Well
Change 4 Life
Diet in Pregnancy
7 days of healthy meals on a budget
10 tips for healthier baking
Healthy South Asian Food for Diabetes