“It’s amazing what you get in one egg, and for only about 90 calories,” says Elizabeth Ward, dietitian and author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.
In addition to more than 12 vitamins and minerals, eggs contain lots of quality protein, which is essential for pregnancy. “Your baby’s cells are growing at an exponential rate, and every cell is made of protein,” Ward explains. “Plus, as a pregnant woman, you have your own protein needs.”
Eggs are also rich in choline, which promotes your baby’s overall growth and brain health, while helping prevent neural tube defects. Some even contain omega-3 fats, important for both brain and vision development. (Brands that have omega-3 fats will probably state so on the label.)
As for eggs’ bad rap for cholesterol? Not warranted, says Ward. It turns out that eating saturated fat does much more damage to your cholesterol level than eating the cholesterol naturally found in food. And while eggs are high in cholesterol, they’re also relatively low in saturated fat, with about one and a half grams per egg.
“Healthy women with normal blood cholesterol can consume one to two eggs a day as part of a balanced diet low in saturated fat,” Ward says.
Need more convincing? Eggs are cheap, easy, quick, and versatile. When you’re too exhausted to cook a full meal, a couple of hard boiled or scrambled eggs are just the ticket.
Not only is salmon brimming with high-quality protein, says Ward, but it’s an exceptionally good source of omega-3 fats. And unlike swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and shark, salmon has low amounts of methylmercury, a compound that can be harmful to your baby’s developing nervous system.
Just remember that even for salmon and other low-mercury fish, such as canned light tuna and pollock, the FDA recommends eating no more than 12 ounces per week to avoid ingesting too much mercury.
Navy beans, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…..there are so many to choose from. “Beans contain the most fiber and protein of all the vegetables,” says Ward.
You already know protein is important during pregnancy, but you may not yet realize that fiber could become your new best friend during the nine-month wait. In pregnancy, the gastrointestinal tract slows down, putting you at risk for constipation and hemorrhoids. Fiber can help prevent and relieve these problems.
In addition, says Ward, food that contains fiber tends to be nutrient-rich. This is certainly true of beans, which are good sources of iron, folate, calcium, and zinc.
Sweet potatoes get their orange color from carotenoids, plant pigments that are converted to vitamin A in our bodies, says Ward.
Although consuming too much “preformed” vitamin A (found in animal sources, such as liver, milk, and eggs) can be dangerous, carotenoids are a different story. They’re converted to vitamin A only as needed, so there’s no need to restrict your consumption of vitamin A-rich fruits and veggies.
Sweet potatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, folate, and fiber. And like beans, they’re inexpensive and versatile. “Cook extra and save them to slice up later as a snack,” Ward suggests.
Popcorn and other whole grains
Yes, you read that right. Popcorn is a whole grain. “People love it when I tell them that!” says Ward. Whole grains are important in pregnancy because they’re high in fiber and nutrients, including vitamin E, selenium, and phytonutrients – plant compounds that protect cells.
Don’t stop at popcorn though. There are lots of other whole grains out there, from oatmeal to whole grain bread to barley. Fluffy, nutty-tasting quinoa is one of Ward’s favorites. “Whole grain quinoa is easy to make and is very high in nutrients, particularly protein, making it a superfood in and of itself,” she says.
Don’t like fish or eggs, but still want to get those omega-3s which are so important for your baby’s brain growth? Try walnuts, suggests dietitian Kate Geagan, author of Go Green, Stay Lean. “Walnuts are one of the richest sources of plant-based omega-3s,” she says. “A handful of walnuts is a great choice for an on-the-run snack or an addition to a salad.”
Greek yogurt typically has twice the protein of regular yogurt, making it one of Geagan’s favorite pregnancy foods. And any kind of yogurt is a great source of calcium, which is vital in a pregnancy diet. If you don’t take in enough calcium, the limited amount you have will go to your baby, says Geagan, depleting the calcium in your bones and teeth.
“The goal during pregnancy is to make sure you provide everything your baby needs without sacrificing your own health and nutrition,” she explains. “Calcium will help keep your own bones intact while laying down a healthy skeleton for your baby.”
Dark green, leafy vegetables
Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other green leafy vegetables are loaded with vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins A, C, and K, as well as the all-important folate. They’ve also been found to promote eye health, Geagan says.
Meat is an excellent source of high-quality protein, says dietitian Karin Hosenfeld of North Dallas Nutrition. “Look for lean meats with the fat trimmed off,” she says. “When buying red meat in particular, look for cuts that are around 95 to 98 percent fat-free.” Beef and pork stand out among meats because in addition to protein, they contain choline, says Ward.
Don’t eat deli meats or hot dogs, though, unless they’re heating until steaming hot. There’s a small risk of passing on bacteria and parasites from the meat such as Listeria monocytogenes toxoplasma, or salmonella to your baby, says Mayo Clinic obstetrician Mary Marnach.
Colorful fruits and veggies
Eating a variety of green, red, orange, yellow, purple, and white fruits and vegetables will ensure that you and your baby get a variety of nutrients. “Each color group provides different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” explains dietitian Jodi Greebel, owner of Citrition, a nutrition counseling service in New York.
Hosenfeld points out another advantage of eating across the fruit and veggie spectrum: “During the later stages of pregnancy, the baby is ‘tasting’ the foods you eat through the amniotic fluid,” she says. “So if you expose your baby to a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables in the womb, you’ll increase the chance that your baby will recognize and accept those flavors later on.”