Food & nutrition in pregnancy

Pregnancy creates extra demands for certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, iodine and many vitamins.

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How much of what do I eat?

Make sure your diet is varied and includes adequate amounts of the following:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • grains, such as high fibre breads and cereals
  • dairy foods and calcium fortified plant milks
  • lean meats and meat alternatives (chicken, fish, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts, and seeds).

You don’t have to eat more but you do have to eat more variety. The following table offers an overview of the variety of food you should eat for optimum health during pregnancy.

Food group Serves per day Sample serve
Meat or alternatives 3 ½ 65g red meat
80g chicken
100g fish
2 eggs
1 cup canned or cooked legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
170g tofu
30g nuts
Dairy or alternatives such as soy or almond milk 2 ½ 1 cup milk
2 slices (40g) cheese
Small tub (¾ cup) yoghurt
Grain foods: high fibre (wholegrain) breads and cereals 8 ½ 1 slice bread, ½ bread roll, 1 chapatti
½ Lebanese bread, 3 crisp breads
1 cup cereal, ½ cup cooked porridge
½ cup rice, pasta or noodles (cooked)
Fruit 2 1 medium fruit (e.g. apple)
2 smaller fruit (e.g. apricots)
1 cup tinned fruit
I tablespoon dried nuts
Vegetables 5 ½ cup cooked vegetables
1 cup salad
½ cup legumes (cooked)
Unsaturated spreads and oils Use in small amounts  
Extra foods e.g., foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugar or alcohol Only sometimes and in small amounts  

What should I eat if I'm a vegetarian or vegan

Lentils, beans, tofu, eggs, and soy milk can replace animal foods in a vegetarian diet. If you do not eat animal foods you will need to take a vitamin B12 supplement, as this vitamin is needed for your baby’s brain development.

For more information see the fact sheet Healthy eating when you’re pregnant: information for vegetarians and vegans

What are the important nutrients during pregnancy?

Folate

Folate (or folic acid) is a vitamin that helps build your baby’s cells and reduces the risk of certain birth defects such as spina bifida. It is found in a variety of foods, such as green leafy vegetables, fruit, wholegrain breads and cereals, fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, and nuts.

It can be difficult to get enough folate from food alone so you will need to take a supplement of 500 micrograms each day (may also be written as 0.5 milligrams, mg). Start taking folate when planning your pregnancy and continue for the first three months of pregnancy (see below - Do I need to take supplements and how much should I take?).

If there is a family history of cleft lip, spinal problems, you are taking an anti-epilepsy medication or you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, this dose may need to be greater. Please discuss this with your doctor.

Iodine

Iodine is another nutrient that is important for your baby’s brain development. To make sure you get adequate iodine either:

  • eat fish one to three times a week, (limit high mercury types) and/or
  • use iodised salt or
  • take a multivitamin for pregnancy that contains at least 150 micrograms of iodine (see below: Do I need to take supplements and how much should I take?)
  • do not take kelp [seaweed] tablets as they may contain too much iodine.

Protein

Protein helps build all body tissues. Aim to include protein-containing foods in each meal. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy foods, nuts, and legumes (dried beans and lentils), and food made from them such as tofu, are protein sources and will help your iron and calcium intake as well.

Iron

Iron is needed to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. During pregnancy you need more iron because the volume of your blood increases and your baby’s blood is also developing.

For an iron rich diet: 

  • include at least two serves of meat, chicken, fish, legumes or nuts every day (see above for suggestions)
  • eat wholegrain breads, cereals, and green leafy vegetables regularly
  • eat vitamin C-rich foods (e.g., fruits, tomatoes, capsicum) at the same meals containing plant sources of iron to boost iron absorption.

If tests during pregnancy show that you are low in iron, you may need an iron supplement. Your local doctor (GP) or dietitian can recommend what you will need.

See the fact sheet Iron in Pregnancy for more information.

Calcium

Calcium helps form healthy bones. The richest source of calcium are dairy foods (note: low fat types have as much calcium as full fat versions). Fish with edible bones such as canned salmon and sardines, as well as firm tofu are also good sources. If you drink soy or other milks, such as almond or rice milk, check the label and choose a brand with the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk (at least 100mg per 100ml).

You need 2 to 3 serves of calcium-rich foods each day (see above for suggestions). If you don’t eat dairy foods or other calcium fortified milks, talk to your dietitian, midwife or doctor about whether you need calcium supplements.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is mostly made in the skin by the action of sunlight, but a small amount can come from foods like oily fish, egg yolks, margarine, and some brands of milk. Vitamin D is important for the development of your baby’s bones and teeth. Low levels can cause muscle weakness and pain in women, and skeletal problems (called rickets) in their babies.

All pregnant women should take a vitamin D supplement of 400 international units (IU) per day (may also be written as 10 micrograms). If a blood test shows you have low levels of vitamin D, you will need to take an even higher dose to correct the deficiency. Your dietitian, doctor or midwife will guide you on this.

For more information see the fact sheet Vitamin D for you and your baby

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are needed for healthy brain, nerve and eye development in your baby and may have other health benefits. They are found in fish, especially oily fish like tuna, salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Walnuts, chia seeds, linseeds (also called flax seeds) and soybeans also contain omega-3 fats.

Eating fish 2 to 3 times a week will help meet your growing baby’s needs. Some types of fish may contain too much mercury and should not be eaten often.

  • Limit shark (flake), marlin, broadbill or swordfish to no more than one serve per fortnight. Eat no other fish that fortnight.
  • Limit orange roughy (deep sea perch) or catfish to one serve per week. Eat no other fish that week.
  • Some pregnancy multivitamins include omega-3 fats. Omega-3 supplements are also available but avoid fish liver oils as they contain too much vitamin A (retinol).

Do I need to take supplements and how much should I take?

There are three nutrients that everyone should take during pregnancy as a supplement. This is because you are unlikely to be able to get enough from the foods you eat no matter how healthy your diet is, or from sunshine.

As well as eating a healthy diet, take a pregnancy supplement that contains at least:

  • Folic acid: 500 micrograms (mcg) (may also be written as 0.5 milligrams (mg))
  • Iodine: 150 micrograms
  • Vitamin D: 400 international units (IU) (may also be written as 10 micrograms)

Most pregnancy multivitamin and mineral supplements will contain these nutrients but there are different amounts in each brand. It is important to read the label, and to know how many tablets to take each day.

Only take a multivitamin designed for pregnancy, because other supplements may contain vitamins that are harmful at high doses in pregnancy (for example, vitamin A/retinol).

If a blood test shows you have low levels of vitamin D, you will need to take an extra vitamin D tablet along with the pregnancy multivitamin supplement. Your doctor, midwife or dietitian will guide you on this.

If a blood test shows you have low levels of any other vitamin or mineral, such as iron or vitamin B12, you may need to take other supplements that give you enough of those nutrients. Talk with your dietitian, midwife, or doctor for more information.

Important things to know

  • Make sure you have a varied and healthy diet (see our fact sheet Healthy eating when you’re pregnant for more information)
  • Your body only needs a small amount of each nutrient; higher amounts are not really better. In fact, taking a lot more than you need may cause harm.
  • Choose a pregnancy multivitamin that has the important nutrients listed above.
  • Check the label for how many tablets to take daily.
  • Supplements that cost more are not always the best ones for you.
  • Your dietitian, midwife or doctor can help you choose the right supplement.

Food safety and hygiene

Listeria and toxoplasmosis are uncommon infections that can be passed onto your unborn baby. Salmonella food poisoning can also affect your pregnancy. It causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and fever, and in rare cases miscarriage.

To reduce your risk of listeria infection:

  • Wash your hands before preparing food.
  • Eat freshly prepared food where possible.
  • Ensure chopping boards and cooking utensils are clean when preparing food.
  • Thoroughly wash vegetables and fruit before eating.
  • Avoid foods such as pate, cold cooked chicken, and deli meats such as ham and salami unless reheated to high temperature e.g., on a pizza.
  • Avoid soft cheeses (e.g., brie, camembert, ricotta, feta, blue cheese) soft serve ice-cream and unpasteurised dairy products. Soft cheeses in cooked dishes are safe.
  • Avoid uncooked or smoked seafood and pre-cooked prawns. Freshly cooked seafood and canned seafood is safe.
  • Listeria is killed by cooking, so make sure that when you reheat food, it is very hot. 

To reduce your risk of toxoplasmosis infection:

  • Cook meat thoroughly
  • Wash vegetables
  • Wear disposable gloves if handling cat litter or gardening
  • Wash your hands after gardening or touching pets.

To reduce your risk of salmonella food poisoning:

  • Don't eat raw or undercooked (runny) eggs
  • Avoid using eggs with cracked shells or foods containing raw eggs
  • Sesame seeds are also a salmonella risk so avoid eating sesame seeds and ready to eat products such as tahini, halva and hummus. Sesame seeds that have been heat treated are safe to eat.

See the fact sheet Food safety in pregnancy for more information.

Eating well is not always easy

It is hard to eat well if you don’t have a stable place to live or enough money for food. There are often services in community organisations or run by city councils that support people to develop these skills and to improve their eating habits.

For a list of food aid organisations in your area visit the AskIzzy website and go to the Food section.

Healthy eating suggestions

  • If you are hungry, stop and grab a snack. Try easy snacks like those listed below.
  • Have one meal a day that has meat, chicken, eggs or fish with some salad or vegetables. Try a hamburger or a stir-fry, an egg and salad sandwich, pizza or pasta with salad, or a home cooked meal.
  • At other times of the day, have cereals, fruit or sandwiches and a glass of milk with Milo or Ovaltine if you prefer.
  • Ask a friend or family member to cook or shop for you if you can’t do it yourself.
  • Don’t have too much tea, coffee or Coke and avoid ‘energy’ drinks, as they have too much caffeine. If you’re thirsty drink more water.
  • If you don’t eat fruit, then have a glass of orange juice and some salad or vegetables instead. If you don’t eat vegetables, have fruit.

Quick ideas for meals and snacks:

  • banana sandwiches
  • eggs or peanut butter on toast
  • baked beans
  • ice-cream, custard or yoghurt on fruit
  • pasta with cheese and a tomato sauce, beans or tuna
  • tuna on salad or toast
  • stir-fried rice with vegetables
  • hot fresh take-away chicken and vegetables
  • soup and toast
  • cheese toasties or homemade pizza
  • a bowl of cereal
  • burritos or tacos
  • milkshake or fruit smoothie.

A variety of good foods every day will provide the vitamins, minerals and nutrition you and your baby need.


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Disclaimer

The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.