Children's Health and Wellness

Nutrition Before Pregnancy

Becoming healthy before becoming pregnant

Pre-conception nutrition is a vital part of preparing for pregnancy. Factors such as your weight compared with your height and what you eat can play an important role in your health during pregnancy and the health of your developing fetus.

Pre-pregnancy weight

Your pre-pregnancy weight has a direct influence on her baby's birthweight. Studies show that underweight women are more likely to give birth to small babies, even though they may gain the same amount in pregnancy as normal weight women. Overweight women have increased risks for problem in pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to lose or gain weight before becoming pregnant.

Choose My Plate icon

Pre-pregnancy nutrition

Many women do not eat a well-balanced diet before pregnancy and may not have the proper nutritional status for the demands of pregnancy. Generally, a pregnant woman needs to add about 300 extra calories daily after the first trimester  to meet the needs of her body and her developing fetus. However, those calories, as well as her entire diet, need to be healthy, balanced, and nutritious.

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you eat a healthy diet by encouraging a variety of foods while getting the right amount of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared this food plate to help you select a variety of healthy foods. MyPlate is available for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food group categories:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Make half of your grains whole-grains. Examples of whole-grains include whole-wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (dry beans and peas), and starchy vegetables. Healthier options include buying fresh, canned (low-sodium or no-salt-added versions) or plain frozen (without added sauces or seasonings) vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned (packed in 100% juice or water), frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed.

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy products that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean with protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine by choosing more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.

Oils are not a food group, yet some, such as nut oils, contain key nutrients and should be included in the diet in moderation. Others, such as animal fats, are solid at room temperature and and should be avoided.

Exercise and everyday physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan. 

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your age, sex, and physical activity level, visit the Online Resources page for the links to the and 2010 Dietary Guidelines sites. Please note that the My Plate plan is designed for people over the age of 2 who do not have chronic health conditions.

In addition to the My Plate food groups, the following nutrients should be included in a woman's pre-conception diet and continued into pregnancy:

  • Folic acid. All women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid each day. Folic acid is a nutrient found in some green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and some vitamin supplements. It can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (called neural tube defects). The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida, in which the vertebrae do not fuse together properly, causing the spinal cord to be exposed. This can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and, sometimes, intellectual disability.

    Folic acid is most beneficial during the first 28 days after conception, when most neural tube defects occur. Unfortunately, many women do not realize they are pregnant before 28 days. Therefore, folic acid intake should begin before conception and continue through pregnancy. Your healthcare provider will recommend the right amount of folic acid to meet your needs.

    Most healthcare providers will prescribe a prenatal supplement before conception, or shortly afterward, to ensure all of the woman's nutritional needs are met. However, a prenatal supplement does not replace a healthy diet.

  • Iron. Many women have low iron stores as a result of monthly menstruation and diets low in iron. Building iron stores helps prepare a mother's body for the needs of the fetus during pregnancy. Good sources of iron include the following:

    • Meats such as beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats.

    • Poultry such as chicken, duck, and turkey (especially dark meat).

    • Fish and shellfish including sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, and oysters. Check with your health care provider before consuming other types of fish as some may contain high levels of mercury.

    • Leafy greens of the cabbage family such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards.

    • Legumes such as lima beans and green peas, dry beans and peas such as pinto beans and black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans.

    • Whole-grain breads and iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals.

  • Calcium. Preparing for pregnancy includes building healthy bones. If there is not enough calcium in the pregnancy diet, the fetus may draw calcium from the mother's bones, which can put women at risk for osteoporosis later in life. The recommended calcium intake for women is 1,000 milligrams. Three servings of milk or other dairy products each day equals about 1,000 milligrams of calcium.

Always consult your healthcare provider regarding your healthy diet and exercise needs.

Online Source: Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium
Online Source: Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Folate
Online Source: US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron
Online Source: MyPlate - Dairy, USDA
Online Source: MyPlate - Fruits, USDA
Online Source: MyPlate - Grains, USDA
Online Source: MyPlate - Protein Foods, USDA
Online Source: MyPlate - Vegetables, USDA
Online Source: US Department of Agriculture. Health and Nutrition Information for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women
Online Source: Eating Right During Pregnancy, Academy of Nutrition and DIetetics
Online Source: US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
Online Editor: Metzger, Geri
Online Medical Reviewer: Horowitz, Diane MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Poulson, Brittany, RD, CDE
Date Last Reviewed: 6/25/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.