Mayo Clinic Health Library

Pregnancy diet: Focus on these essential nutrients

Updated: 05-21-2011

There's no magic formula for a healthy pregnancy diet. In fact, during pregnancy the basic principles of healthy eating remain the same — get plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. However, a few nutrients in a pregnancy diet deserve special attention. Here's what tops the list.

Folate and folic acid — Prevent birth defects

Folate is a B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects, serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord. Lack of folate in a pregnancy diet may also increase the risk of low birth weight and preterm delivery. The synthetic form of folate found in supplements and fortified foods is known as folic acid.

How much you need: 800 micrograms of folate or folic acid a day before conception and throughout pregnancy.

Good sources: Fortified cereals are great sources of folic acid. Leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and dried beans and peas are good sources of naturally occurring folate.

FoodServing sizeFolic acid content
Cereal 3/4 cup (15 to 45 grams) 100 percent fortified ready-to-eat cereal 100 to 700 micrograms — choose a cereal with at least 400 micrograms
Spinach 1/2 cup (90 grams) boiled spinach 131 micrograms
Beans 1/2 cup (88 grams) boiled Great Northern beans 90 micrograms
Asparagus 4 boiled spears (60 grams) 89 micrograms
Peanuts 1 ounce (28 grams) dry roasted 41 micrograms
Oranges 1 orange (159 grams) 48 micrograms

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23

In addition to making healthy food choices, taking a daily prenatal vitamin — ideally starting three months before conception — can help ensure you're getting enough of this essential nutrient.

Calcium — Strengthen bones

You and your baby need calcium for strong bones and teeth. Calcium also helps your circulatory, muscular and nervous systems run normally.

How much you need: 1,000 milligrams a day. Pregnant teenagers need 1,300 milligrams a day.

Good sources: Dairy products are the richest sources of calcium. Many fruit juices and breakfast cereals are fortified with calcium, too.

FoodServing sizeCalcium content
Juice 8 ounces (237 milliliters) calcium-fortified orange juice 500 milligrams
Milk 1 cup (237 milliliters) skim milk 299 milligrams
Yogurt 6 ounces (170 grams) low-fat fruit yogurt 258 milligrams
Cheese 1 ounce (28 grams) part-skim mozzarella cheese 222 milligrams
Salmon 3 ounces (85 grams) canned pink salmon with bones 181 milligrams
Spinach 1/2 cup (90 grams) boiled spinach 122 milligrams
Cereal 1 cup (20 to 60 grams) calcium-fortified ready-to-eat cereal 3 to 1,000 milligrams

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23

Vitamin D — Promote bone strength

Vitamin D also helps build your baby's bones and teeth.

How much you need: 600 IU a day.

Good sources: Fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, are great sources of vitamin D. Other options include fortified milk and orange juice.

FoodServing sizeVitamin D content
Fish 3 ounces (85 grams) cooked sockeye salmon 447 IU
Juice 8 ounces (237 milliliters) calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice 137 IU
Milk 1 cup (237 milliliters) skim milk 115 IU
Asparagus 4 boiled spears (60 grams) 89 micrograms
Eggs 1 large hard-boiled egg (50 grams) 44 IU

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23

Protein — Promote growth

Protein is crucial for your baby's growth, especially during the second and third trimesters.

How much you need: 71 grams a day.

Good sources: Lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs are great sources of protein. Other options include dried beans and peas, tofu, dairy products and peanut butter.

FoodServing sizeProtein content
Cottage cheese 1 cup (226 grams) low-fat, 1% milk cottage cheese 28 grams
Poultry 1/2 (86 grams) boneless, skinless roasted chicken breast 26.7 grams
Fish 3 ounces (85 grams) canned pink salmon with bones 16.8 grams
Lentils 1/2 cup (99 grams) boiled lentils 8.9 grams
Milk 1 cup (237 milliliters) skim milk 8.3 grams
Peanut butter 2 tablespoons (32 grams) smooth, vitamin- and mineral-fortified peanut butter 8.2 grams
Eggs 1 large hard-boiled egg (50 grams) 6.3 grams

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23

Iron — Prevent anemia

Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen to your tissues. During pregnancy your blood volume expands to accommodate changes in your body and help your baby make his or her entire blood supply — doubling your need for iron.

If you don't get enough iron, you may become fatigued and more susceptible to infections. The risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight also may be higher.

How much you need: 27 milligrams a day.

Good sources: Lean red meat, poultry and fish are good sources of iron. Other options include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, nuts and dried fruit.

FoodServing sizeIron content
Cereal 3/4 cup (15 to 45 grams) 100 percent iron-fortified ready-to-eat cereal 18 milligrams
Beans 1 cup (177 grams) boiled kidney beans 3.9 milligrams
Spinach 1/2 cup (90 grams) boiled spinach 3.2 milligrams
Meat 3 ounces (85 grams) roasted lean beef tenderloin 2.6 milligrams
Poultry 1/2 cup (70 grams) roasted dark turkey 1.6 milligrams

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 23

Prenatal vitamins typically contain iron. In some cases, your health care provider might recommend a separate iron supplement.

The iron from animal products, such as meat, is most easily absorbed. To enhance the absorption of iron from plant sources and supplements, pair them with a food or drink high in vitamin C — such as orange juice, tomato juice or strawberries. If you take iron supplements with orange juice, avoid the calcium-fortified variety. Although calcium is an essential nutrient during pregnancy, calcium can decrease iron absorption.

Supplements — Ask your health care provider

Even if you eat a healthy diet, you can miss out on key nutrients. Taking a daily prenatal vitamin — ideally starting three months before conception — can help fill any gaps. Your health care provider might recommend special supplements if you follow a strict vegetarian diet or have a chronic health condition. If you're considering taking an herbal supplement during pregnancy, consult your health care provider first.

Site view: at a glance