Top 10 Pregnancy Superfoods, According to Dietitians
There are specific macro and micronutrients your body needs more of when growing a baby. Folate and choline help baby's brain and spinal cord development. Calcium and vitamin D support developing bones and teeth. And while prenatal vitamins deliver some of these key nutrients, they lack in delivering some, experts say. Be sure to take your prenatal vitamin of course—starting before you even become pregnant, but add these ten pregnancy superfoods to your diet too to help ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby.
You may have heard not to eat too much fish during pregnancy because of mercury levels, but, "Don't fear the fish!" says Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LD, registered dietitian at Katie Goldberg Nutrition. "The benefits of omega-3s far outweigh the risks of mercury in seafood." Omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for baby's brain development.
"Fish and seafood also contain a number of other nutrients such as iodine and selenium," says registered dietitian Jessica Monroe PhD, RD, LD, dietitian and owner of Fresh Nutrition & Wellness. "Research shows that the best sources of DHA are from fish like salmon, canned light tuna, and anchovies, all safe to consume and recommended 2-3 times per week while pregnant," she says. This equates to about 8-12 ounces per week. Steer clear of king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish, and shark, which are higher in mercury. Fresh salmon is expensive, so try adding canned salmon to your diet (Safe Catch tests for mercury in their canned salmon. $23.99 for 6 cans on Amazon.com)
Asparagus contains a significant amount of folate compared to other vegetables, says Ryann Kipping, RDN, CLEC, Author of The Feel-Good Pregnancy Cookbook and founder of The Prenatal Nutritionist. "Folate is key in the prevention of neural tube defects. Although asparagus is best fresh, the canned or frozen varieties work when it is out of season." Two cups of asparagus also has about 20% of your daily iron needs. Iron helps deliver blood and oxygen to your growing baby.
For a twist on plain grilled asparagus, try our Asparagus Potato Skillet.
"Eggs are one of the best sources of choline," Kipping says. "Choline has been compared to folate for its equally important role in brain development. Sadly, it is left out of the majority of prenatal vitamins."
Goldberg and Monroe echo this recommendation with the reminder that you have to eat the yolk to get choline. In addition to containing choline, "Eggs are a complete protein (meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids) and contain many vitamins including folate, B12, A, E, and D and minerals such as iodine and selenium," says Monroe.
In a 2018 study, infants had faster information processing speeds throughout the first year of life when their mothers consumed twice the recommended amount of choline in the third trimester, compared to infants of moms who received the recommended amount of choline per day.
Plus, eggs are quick and easy to eat. But if you're getting bored of your usual scrambled or hard boiled eggs, mix things up with our Sheet Pan Eggs with Ham and Spinach.
4. Dark leafy greens
You probably saw this one coming. Load up on kale, spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. "Dark leafy green vegetables are rich in folate, a nutrient essential in forming the neural tube (which ultimately becomes the brain and spinal cord)," says Monroe.
Leafy greens also, "contain folate, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, and iron, all vital components in having a healthy pregnancy," says Kipping. "Pair kale with olive oil, nuts, or avocados for better nutrient absorption."
And not only are leafy greens good for baby, but they are also good for mama, mentions Monroe, due to their high fiber content that will keep your bowels regular.
Mix spinach into scrambled eggs or make this Farro and Kale Salad. Add salmon to get more bang for your buck.
5. Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese is chock-full of calcium, protein, and iodine. "As table salt has gone out of fashion," Goldberg explains, "iodine deficiency and insufficiency is on the rise. Iodine plays a role in brain and spinal cord development, along with thyroid function." Enjoy cottage cheese sweet or savory. You can mix ¾ cup with cherry tomatoes, basil, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Or mix it with berries and honey for a sweet treat. If you don't love the texture of cottage cheese you can put it in a smoothie in place of yogurt to reap its benefits, Goldberg says. Learn more about why cottage cheese is so good for you.
6. Greek yogurt
You need 1,200 mg of calcium per day when pregnant. Six ounces of plain Greek yogurt has 230 mg of calcium, delivering 19% of daily calcium needs. Not to mention, yogurt is also high in vitamin D and contains good-for-the-gut probiotics. Monroe recommends choosing full-fat dairy to help with vitamin absorption. Vitamins A, D, E, and K need fat in order to be fully absorbed. The added fat will also keep you full longer.
Enjoy Greek yogurt with berries and granola for breakfast or use it to make a tzatziki sauce for salmon like we do in our Grilled Salmon Kebabs with Tzatziki and Green Beans.
Meat is high in iron, and you need 27 mg of iron per day when pregnant—that's one and a half times the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for non-pregnant women. The iron in meat, also called the heme form, is more efficiently absorbed than non-heme iron, the kind found in plants. So add lean ground beef, turkey, chicken, and lean pork to your grocery cart and consume one to two times per week.
Enjoy grilled meat with vegetables and whole grains or make taco Tuesday a regular occurrence each week.
You can also, "Maximize the nutrients in meat by using the bones to make a mineral-rich (including calcium, potassium, and magnesium - all important for bone development in fetuses) broth," says Monroe. "Meat and bone broth are also a great source of glycine - an amino acid that is needed to support growing/stretching skin for mom and baby."
8. Pumpkin Seeds
One ounce of pumpkin seeds packs five grams of fiber, five grams of protein, and 18% of the recommended dietary allowance for magnesium, a key nutrient during pregnancy that helps regulate over 300 enzyme systems in the body. Magnesium plays a role in everything from blood sugar control to protein synthesis to muscle and nerve function. Along with pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, peanuts, chia seeds and avocados are also high in magnesium.
If plain nuts and seeds sound a little unappealing, try a healthy snack bar or DIY chia seed pudding. Larabars are made with nuts and dates, and sometimes chocolate ($4.79 for 5 at Target.com). Chia pudding is chia seeds mixed with milk of choice and some fruit or sweetener (Chia seeds, $3.99 at Target.com) and can be a great high-fiber, protein-rich snack that delivers omega-3's and magnesium.
9. Beans and Legumes
Protein is essential to support baby and mom's growth during pregnancy. But it can be hard to get enough if you don't eat meat or you don't have the energy to cook it. Not to mention, some moms can't handle the smell of meat during pregnancy. Enter: beans and legumes. Think chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, and soybeans. Beans are packed with protein, fiber, iron, folate, and zinc - all crucial nutrients during pregnancy. Plus, they're easy to prepare. Buy canned beans, simply rinse in a colander, and mix into a chili, tacos, or a bean salad. To increase iron absorption from beans, pair them with vitamin C-rich foods like peppers and leafy greens. Bean-based pastas like Banza's Chickpea Rotini ($2.99, Target.com) and Barilla's Red Lentil Spaghetti ($2.69, Target.com) are a great way to get that bean nutrition—think extra fiber, iron and protein—while still eating pasta.
10. Whole Grains
We can't conclude this pregnancy superfood list without including carbs. Besides being your body's preferred source of energy, carbohydrates are your best friend in the first trimester when nausea strikes. "You're not normally going to see 'plain carbs' on anyone's list of superfoods, but that is one thing that I recommend for managing nausea (and the one thing that helped me during my two pregnancies!).
Think: whole grain crackers or breads, plain popcorn or dry cereal. I recommend small amounts of these foods in between meals or first thing in the morning." Pre-bagged popcorn (like Angie's Boomchickapop Sea Salt, $3.29 Target.com), whole-grain pancake mix (like Kodiak Cakes Power Cakes Buttermilk, $4.99 Target.com) and whole-grain toast with nut butter, avocado or cheese are all great choices.
Don't beat yourself up if you just want white toast or pizza in the first 12 weeks. But when you can, try to make those grains whole for added iron, zinc, B vitamins, and fiber, which will keep you full and regular. Try our recipes for Cheesy Popcorn and Quinoa Veggie Burger to add more whole grains to your diet
Fatty fish, green vegetables, and high-protein foods like meat and beans are pregnancy superfoods that will ensure baby gets the essential nutrients for optimal growth and development. The protein, iron, and fiber from these foods will also keep you regular throughout pregnancy. "It's really important to focus on including as many nutrient-dense foods possible during both the preconception phase and during pregnancy but understand that not every day will be perfect," reminds Kipping.