A guide to pregnancy nutrition


A guide to pregnancy nutrition

Updated August 2023 | 4 min read
Expert contributor Melanie McGrice, advanced accredited practising dietitian and founding director of Nutrition Plus; Jennifer Hazi, midwife and childbirth educator
Words by Helen Foster

Eating healthily during pregnancy is important. We’ve put together a guide to pregnancy nutrition to help you understand what you can and can’t eat and drink during your pregnancy.

When you fall pregnant, a healthy diet can help keep you and your baby well. And while pregnancy cravings might be guiding your approach to food and drink, there are some important nutrients you need more of during your pregnancy and some foods to avoid.

To make it simple, we sort the fact from the fiction to find all the pregnancy nutritional needs an expectant mother, and her support team, need to be aware of.

Do I have to give up coffee and caffeine?

One of the most commonly asked questions is, ‘can I have caffeine during pregnancy’. According to midwife and childbirth educator Jennifer Hazi, “While high levels of caffeine (classed as above 300mg a day) may be linked to a higher rate of miscarriage, there’s no confirmed risk with a low or moderate intake.”

When it comes to caffeine intake, it's recommended that you stick to less than 200mg a day. The approximate amounts of caffeine found in food and drinks are:

  • 1 cup of instant coffee: 60mg
  • 1 shot of espresso coffee: 100mg
  • 1 cup of plunger coffee: 80mg
  • 1 cup of tea: 30mg
  • 375ml can of cola: 49mg
  • 250ml can of energy drink: 80mg
  • 100g bar of milk chocolate: 20mg

Decaffeinated varieties contain little to no caffeine but it’s always important to read the label.

An important part of your pregnancy nutrition is increasing your fluids, so replace any cups of coffee you do remove from your usual intake with other drinks like water or milk. And remember that you may be drinking caffeine in other drinks, too.

“Rooibos tea, ginger or peppermint herbal teas, or just a little hot water with some fresh mint leaves, are good things to swap to,” says Jennifer.

Nutritional needs in pregnancy

The idea of eating for two people when you're pregnant is outdated. In the first three months, you don’t need to increase your food intake. For the rest of the pregnancy, you only need an additional two serves of wholegrains and an additional one serve of protein a day.

“Instead of focusing on quantity, think quality,” says Jennifer. “Choose a good selection of vegetables and healthy fats from nuts, seeds and avocado. Aim for a little protein with every meal and plenty of fibrous foods like wholegrain bread, brown rice and beans.”

The government website Eat for Health provides specific advice on eating well during pregnancy.

Can I eat fish?

When it comes to eating fish in pregnancy, there are “a few caveats,” says Melanie McGrice, advanced accredited practising dietitian and founding director of Nutrition Plus. “We know that the omega 3 fats [fish] contain are very important for the baby’s brain development. Fish consumption is also linked to lower asthma risk.

“However, it’s important to eat all fish cooked, not raw,” says Melanie. This is important because raw or undercooked fish can expose your growing baby to mercury, bacteria and other harmful parasites.

“Limit your consumption of large oily fish like flake (shark), marlin or swordfish to one 100g [cooked] portion a fortnight, as these can carry high levels of mercury,” she says. Or eat two to three serves per week of other fish like salmon or tuna, recommends Better Health Victoria.

Can I eat soft cheese, deli meats and raw eggs?

“The fear about eating these is that they can carry bacteria like salmonella or listeria that can be very dangerous to an unborn child,” says Melanie.

“In Australia the risk of [listeria] infection is very low. Still, because listeria is so dangerous to the foetus, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” she says. Studies have found that about 150 people are hospitalised due to listeriosis each year.

Some high-risk foods include soft cheeses like brie, camembert, ricotta, feta, mould-ripened goat’s cheese, and others with a similar rind. Other higher risk pregnancy foods to avoid include:

  • cold cooked chicken
  • cold processed meats
  • unpasteurised dairy products (rarely for sale in Australia)
  • cold smoked salmon
  • pre-prepared or packed salads
  • pâté
  • raw or undercooked eggs.

If you’re travelling overseas during your pregnancy, take particular care to avoid these foods, as well as undercooked foods.

What supplements do I need to take?

Taking prenatal vitamins that have B vitamin folate (folic acid) is recommended for every pregnant woman as it can help prevent certain birth defects, including spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

“You should take this as soon as you start trying to conceive, or at least as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, and for the first three months [of pregnancy],” says Jennifer. “For most women a daily dose of 500mcg is recommended.”

An iodine supplement is also recommended in pregnancy for healthy baby development. Other supplements that your GP, midwife or obstetrician may suggest include vitamin D (for those who lack sunlight on their skin), iron or B12 (vegans and vegetarians).

Ask your doctor, midwife or an accredited practising dietitian for advice before taking any supplements.

What supplements should I avoid?

“You shouldn’t take anything with a high level of vitamin E during pregnancy – it has been linked to low birth weight. High doses of vitamin A can also be toxic,” says Melanie.

“The amount in a basic multivitamin should be okay, but don’t supplement with large individual doses.”

Liver is also very high in vitamin A and isn’t recommended during pregnancy. You don’t need to avoid foods that have vitamin E, as it’s unlikely you’ll get too much through your diet.

Can I get away with the odd glass of wine?

Although it’s common in some cultures, and some research has previously said very small amounts of alcohol in early pregnancy might not harm the baby, avoiding alcohol is the safest option.

“The National Health and Medical Research Council advises that the safest option for women is to abstain from drinking if they’re pregnant – or even planning a pregnancy,” says Simon Strahan, CEO of DrinkWise. “It’s simply not known how much alcohol is safe to drink when you’re pregnant – although the risk of harm is greater the more you drink.”

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