Healthy Mother, Healthy Baby: Prenatal Nutrition 101

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There may never be another time in your life where you receive a doctor’s order to consume 300 more calories per day! Your baby-to-be needs those extra calories. While pregnant, eating a healthy diet is crucial to making sure your baby is getting all the essential nutrients to develop properly.

Before we get started, keep in mind that weight gain is a normal part of pregnancy. Not everyone will gain the same amount and that’s ok. Gaining the same amount of weight is not recommended for everyone—it depends on your starting BMI. Here’s a link to the Institute of Medicine’s guidelines.

What does a healthy diet look like for a pregnant woman? Pregnancy is special time in life, so it makes sense that you have special nutritional needs. Here are a few tips to help deliver a healthful diet while pregnant:

whole-grains-pregnancy1. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables remain an important source of vitamins and minerals during pregnancy.

2. Make at least half of your grains whole. Whole grains offer key vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Enriched grains should be included in your diet, too. These grains have been fortified with B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and iron, all of which are important for healthy growth and development. So important, in fact, that in 1998, the United States FDA required folic acid be added to enriched flour to reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects.

3. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy. For example, try switching to skim or 1% milk. This can help reduce your saturated fat intake. Milk products (e.g., milk, yogurt, cheese and fortified soy beverages) can be an excellent source of vitamin D and calcium necessary for your baby’s bone growth.

4. Make sure to get enough protein. Protein’s main roles are to aid in growth, maintenance, and repair of cells, all of which your body needs for your baby’s development. Try varying your protein sources among plant-based and animal-based protein to assure you are consuming all the essential amino acids your body needs for healthy development.

5. Fats are key components in cell membranes and brain and nervous tissue. All fat-containing foods contain a blend of fats—you’re never eating just one type in isolation. It’s important to incorporate healthful unsaturated fats into your diet. Unsaturated fats are primarily found in foods such as vegetable oils, nuts, avocadoes, and fish. Monounsaturated fats help to lower LDL cholesterol (the kind you want less of) and maintain HDL cholesterol (the kind you want more of). Omega-3’s and omega-6’s are two types of polyunsaturated fats that can also help reduce total and LDL cholesterol when subbed for saturated and trans fats. Omega-3’s also assist in visual and cognitive development of young infants.

By following these tips for a healthy diet you will not only feel full after a meal, but will also ensure that you are consuming the essential vitamins and minerals needed for your baby’s health. To make sure you are covering all aspects of your baby’s developmental needs, additional supplementation may be recommended for the following vitamins and minerals:

Folic acid/Folate

Folic acid is the form of the vitamin you will find in dietary supplements, and folate is found in foods such as beans, peas, oranges, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified grain products. It is recommended that pregnant women consume 600 micrograms (mcg) of dietary folate equivalents (DFEs) (the unit used on dietary supplement labels) every day to prevent brain and neural tube birth defects. 



Calcium is found in foods such as broccoli, dark green leafy greens, and fortified milk and orange juice. Calcium is important for many aspects of development, including strengthening your baby’s bones and teeth. It is recommended to consume 1,300 milligrams (mg) per day from diet, supplements, or a mixture of both.


Iron is found in red meat, poultry, fish, and fortified cereals and is critical for providing red blood cells with oxygen to the baby. The amount of iron recommended for pregnant women is 27 mg per day. For lactating women, the recommended amount per day is 9 mg. It’s important to note that prenatal supplements alone can often contain the whole 27 mg, so read the label to determine how much you’re receiving aside from foods.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D can come from fortified milk, fatty fish such as salmon, mushrooms, and by spending time out in the sun. Even though no additional supplementation is recommended for pregnant women, it does work together with calcium to build bone and teeth, which makes it important to consume the recommended amount of 600 IU (15 mcg) per day.

Eating healthy is only half the battle! Physical activity also plays an important role in a healthy pregnancy. The goal is to participate in physical activity for at least 2 ½ hours per week, depending on your own limitations and your doctor’s approval. Walking, swimming, and low intensity exercise classes are all great ways to stay active!  


For more information on nutritional needs during pregnancy, visit



International Food Information Council (June 2011). Healthy Eating During Pregnancy 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (April 2015). Nutrition During Pregnancy. 

United States Department of Agriculture (September 2015). Nutritional Needs During Pregnancy. 

USDA WIC Works (February 2013). Tips for Pregnant Moms. 


This blog was written by Elizabeth Haley, a dietetic intern at the University of Maryland, with contributions from Kris Sollid, RD, and Allison Dostal, PhD, RD.