Take the recommended supplements
A balanced diet should provide all the nutrients you need during your pregnancy; however, it’s advised you take two vitamins in particular:
For the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy, taking a supplement of folic acid (400 micrograms per day) as well as eating more foods rich in folate will help minimise the risk of neural tube defects. For women with a BMI over 30 it’s advised that a higher folic acid supplementation of 5mg (milligrams) per day is taken. This needs to be prescribed as it’s not available over the counter – and, of course, the good news is that prescriptions are free when you’re pregnant.
Foods rich in folate include:
- Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, asparagus, kale, spinach, spring greens, broccoli, and other green vegetables. Overcooking these will reduce the amount of folate, so keep them crunchy. Steaming will retain the most amount of the vitamin.
- Fortified breads and cereals which have folic acid added to them can also be good sources.
- Other good sources include oranges, vegetables like cauliflower, lettuce, parsnips and peas, brown rice, eggs, cooked soya beans, baked beans and chickpeas.
It’s important that you have good stores of vitamin D during your pregnancy to provide your baby with enough vitamin D for the first few months of his or her life. As sunlight is the main source of vitamin D and there are few dietary sources, all adults and children over five years old, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, are advised to consider taking a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement daily.
For more information on vitamin D, visit the NHS website.
Avoid liver and vitamin A supplements
Some vitamin A is essential during pregnancy, but high doses can be harmful to your baby. Liver, liver products (such as liver pâté or liver sausage) and supplements containing vitamin A can be toxic to a developing baby, so avoid these during your pregnancy.
When pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
Limit your caffeine intake to no more than 200mg a day – high levels can lead to low birth weight or even miscarriage. Here’s the average caffeine content in some drinks:
- 1 mug instant coffee = 100mg
- 1 mug filter coffee = 140mg
- 1 mug tea = 75mg
- 1 can cola = up to 40mg
- 50g plain chocolate = most UK brands contain less than 25mg
- 50g milk chocolate = most UK brands contain less than 10mg
You can eat most types of fish when you’re pregnant, and fish is a good source of protein and important vitamins and minerals. Oily fish contains essential omega-3 fatty acids and is good for the development of the baby’s brain and eyes. However, pollutants in oily fish can affect the development of your unborn baby, so you’re recommended to limit oily fish (for example, kippers, mackerel, plain or smoked salmon, sardines, trout, whitebait) to no more than two portions per week.
Avoid swordfish, shark and marlin and limit the amount of tuna you eat to no more than two tuna steaks (1 portion = 140g cooked) or four medium-sized cans a week. This is to prevent you having high levels of mercury, which can harm the baby’s developing nervous system.
White fish and other non-oily fish such as cod, haddock and plaice don’t need to be limited during pregnancy.
Fish oil supplements made from the body of the fish (sometimes referred to as omega-3 supplements) are usually safe to take in pregnancy (but it’s recommended to always check any supplements you want to take with your doctor or midwife). Fish oil supplements made from the liver of the fish, such as cod liver oil, are high in vitamin A, which can be toxic to developing babies, so it’s recommended to avoid fish/cod liver oil supplements.
Food safety during pregnancy
As well as ensuring that your diet provides enough essential nutrients, there are a number of food safety issues which pregnant women are advised to consider. These recommendations are made to reduce the risk of harm to the developing baby. Eating certain foods doesn’t necessarily mean the baby will be harmed, but it can increase the risk:
To reduce the risk of food-borne infections such as salmonella and listeria it’s advised that the following are avoided:
- Soft ripened and blue-veined cheeses (unless cooked)
- Pâté (all types including vegetable)
- Raw or undercooked meats, eg, rare steak (unless cooked thoroughly until steaming hot without any trace of pink)
- Cured meats, eg, Parma ham/salami (unless cooked)
- Raw shellfish
- Rare sushi fish (unless frozen first)
- Unpasteurised milk and its products (unless cooked)
Hen eggs produced under the British Lion Code of Practice (with a red lion stamped on the shell) are considered very low risk for salmonella, and safe for pregnant women to eat raw or partially cooked. So you can eat raw hen eggs or food containing lightly cooked hen eggs (such as soft-boiled eggs, mousses, soufflés and fresh mayonnaise) provided the eggs are produced under the Lion Code.
Non-Lion Code hen eggs, and non-hen eggs such as duck, goose and quail eggs, should always be cooked thoroughly until the whites and yolks are solid.
For more in-depth information on foods to avoid during pregnancy, visit NHS choices...
General food-handling guidelines
- Wash your hands before preparing food and after handling raw meat.
- Wash fruit and vegetables well, especially if they’re going to be eaten raw.
- Store raw meat covered at the bottom of the fridge, separate from cooked foods.
- Defrost frozen meat thoroughly before cooking.
- Check that meat, poultry and shellfish are thoroughly cooked.
- Keep leftovers covered in the fridge and use within two days.
- Reheat cooked-chilled food thoroughly.
- Ensure foods are eaten within use-by dates.
- Avoid cross-contamination (where harmful bacteria are spread between food, surfaces and equipment) and thoroughly clean utensils and surfaces after preparing food, particularly raw meat.
Peanuts and allergy
It’s fine to enjoy peanuts and products containing peanuts, such as peanut butter, as part of a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding if you like them (unless, of course, you’re allergic to them). There is no clear evidence that eating peanuts during pregnancy and breastfeeding affects your baby’s chance of developing a peanut allergy.