A Naturally Healthy Pregnancy Diet: The Main Principles

Learn how to eat a naturally healthy pregnancy diet. Plus, how to stay healthy during pregnancy.

A woman cradling her pregnant belly in front of an open refrigerator

Finding out you’re pregnant can be an exciting time. You can’t wait to tell your loved ones and start planning for the arrival of your new baby. But it’s also filled with a lot of concerns, including how to make sure you stay healthy. The key to this is eating natural, nutrient-dense foods. But what foods are best during pregnancy? And what exactly is a naturally healthy pregnancy diet? Your head might be spinning as you think about the next nine months. 

This guide will help you figure out pregnancy meal plans that are right for you. Plus, one of our Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) experts weighs in on what to eat and what not to eat and other ways you can have a smooth pregnancy.

A Healthy Pregnancy Diet by Trimester

Various superfoods on a countertop
Eating nutrient-dense foods is an important part of a healthy pregnancy diet.

A woman’s body goes through a lot of changes over the course of her pregnancy. These changes can influence what it means to eat a healthy pregnancy diet depending on the trimester. 

TCM physician Lim Sock Ling explains these changes, “From TCM’s perspective, blood from various organs and meridians concentrate at the chong mai (penetrating vessel, sea of blood) and ren mai (conception vessel or directing vessel) to nourish the fetus. These vessels play an important role in hormonal and gynecological conditions, especially fertility and pregnancy. As a result, a pregnant woman may display symptoms of blood or yin deficiency, and yang/heaty syndrome such as constipation, thirst, or insomnia.” 

Physician Lim also explains the causes of nausea and loss of appetite in pregnant women, “During pregnancy, the qi from chong mai (i.e. chong qi) flows upward, causing disorder to stomach qi. As a result, nausea and appetite loss are common since the stomach is not functioning optimally. 

Individuals with either of the following are more prone to nausea during pregnancy—weak spleen and stomach (or digestive system); accumulation of phlegm and dampness in the stomach; internal heat.” 

In layperson’s terms, this means that digestion is slow and stagnant, or the reverse, overactive. 

Ultimately, it’s important to eat a balanced diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, with plenty of protein. The guide below outlines a healthy pregnancy diet plan to follow by each trimester. That said, be sure to speak with your doctor or nutritionist to advise you on pregnancy meal plans specific to your dietary needs.

First Trimester

During the first trimester, fetal development is slow and pregnancy symptoms are often more pronounced. Physician Lim suggests that pregnant women eat foods they enjoy (though don’t overeat) to encourage food intake during a time when nausea and appetite loss might be concerns. Recommendations include foods that are slightly sour and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Second Trimester

Once a woman enters the second trimester, the growth of the fetus is accelerated. Consume foods that are rich in protein, calcium, and phosphorous to promote the growth of muscles and bones, nourish the bone marrow and the brain, and contribute to fetal development. Examples of foods rich in protein include bird’s nest, rice, beans, meat, fish (e.g. salmon), and eggs. Foods rich in calcium are green vegetables, egg yolk, and milk. Foods rich in phosphorous are soybeans and chicken.

Third Trimester

As a woman enters the final stretch of her pregnancy during the third trimester, it’s important to keep eating high-quality protein and avoid salty foods to help prevent bloating. TCM practitioner also recommends eating some cooling foods such as fruits and vegetables at this time because the body is usually more “heaty.” This is exactly what it sounds like: eating cooler foods helps to cool the body, and eating warm foods warms the body. 

Physician Lim also makes several other important dietary recommendations for pregnant women, “Include goji berries to help to nourish the kidney and provide high amounts of antioxidants. Spinach nourishes the blood, is high in folate, and alleviates constipation. Eggs nourish the yin and blood, calm the mind, and contain high protein and iron. Walnuts are beneficial as snacks during pregnancy as they nourish kidney yang, are high in protein, and can help lower back pain and constipation.”

Foods to Avoid

Physician Lim advises pregnant women to avoid “cooling” or chilled and raw food and beverages, as well as fried, oily, and spicy foods. This is especially important for women with a weak digestive system or during the first trimester when the pregnancy is unstable. She also advises to abstain from alcohol and limiting caffeinated drinks to 200mg or approximately 2 cups per day while pregnant. Pregnant women with gestational diabetes should avoid sweet beverages and foods high in carbohydrates such as rice and white bread.

Some More TCM Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

Three pregnant women doing yoga indoor class
Getting regular exercise helps to build stamina during pregnancy.

Eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods is critical to a healthy pregnancy. But there are also several other ways you can ensure your body and mind remain in top shape throughout your pregnancy.

Exercise regularly

Stay active during pregnancy, as long as the fetus is stable and there are no underlying health conditions or complications. This helps to promote healthy weight gain during pregnancy, build stamina, tone muscles, ease constipation, and decrease the risks of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. 

Exercises include brisk walking, jogging, simple stretching, yoga, Pilates, and swimming. Physician Lim also recommends Kegel exercises to help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which support the abdominal muscles, including the uterus, vagina, bowel, and bladder. Consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. You should also stop exercising and contact your doctor if you experience vaginal discharge, bleeding, or contractions, or if you feel nauseous, dehydrated, lightheaded, or have difficulty breathing.

Gain weight appropriately

Often a pregnant woman is told to “eat for two.” However, it’s important to eat according to your individual needs. You may want to consult a nutritionist. It’s also important not to overeat and gain unnecessary weight.

Supplement with vitamins and minerals

In addition to a healthy pregnancy diet, you can supplement with certain necessary vitamins and minerals. Folate, calcium, phosphorous, and iron are important minerals to include.

Eat these herbs

There are also some TCM herbal remedies that can help support a healthy pregnancy diet. Shi shen soup, which can help strengthen the digestive system, improve immunity, and help alleviate bloating. Li zhong wan, helps digestion and improves qi, or energy flow, plus relieves bloating and minor indigestion. Shou tai wan, which physician Lim notes helps to nourish the kidneys and stabilize pregnancy. However, she advises that it’s important to consult a TCM physician for TCM herbal recommendations specific to your body’s needs.  

If you’re following a diet free from meat and animal products, make sure to include some additional herbs and spices in your diet. Physician Lim recommends several herbs and spices, based on the TCM perspective, “Ginger, cumin, and cinnamon warm the stomach and spleen yang. This balances the yin obtained from most vegetables. Goji berries are high in antioxidants and nourish the kidney, liver, and blood, and they contain all 8 essential amino acids which help to meet the protein requirements. Black sesame seeds and longan nourish blood.”

Get plenty of rest

While getting a good night’s sleep is always important, getting plenty of rest is critical during pregnancy. Going to bed at an earlier hour and getting adequate rest is key. Physician Lim says this helps promote calm and optimism, supporting the body’s qi, or life force, and blood to be stable and healthy. She also recommends that a pregnant woman should sleep on her left side to reduce pressure on the baby.

Try acupuncture

Physician Lim recommends trying acupuncture during pregnancy rather than taking medications that may pose a risk to the fetus. Acupuncture can help relieve symptoms of headache, nausea, sinus issues, and insomnia. Studies show that acupuncture during pregnancy is safe if administered at the appropriate acupuncture points in a safe and appropriate manner by a qualified practitioner. 

Eat a naturally healthy pregnancy diet, and get regular exercise and rest to help ensure that you will feel your best. Follow these natural pregnancy diet and lifestyle tips to maintain your overall wellbeing during your pregnancy.

References

  1. Acupunct Med. 2014. The Safety of Acupuncture During Pregnancy: A Systematic Review. [Accessed 1 November 2021] 
  2. Mayo Clinic. N.d. Pregnancy Diet: Focus on These Essential Nutrients. [Accessed 1 November 2021] 
  3. National Institutes of Health & Human Services. 2021. Moderate Daily Caffeine Intake During Pregnancy May Lead to Smaller Birth Size. [Accessed 1 November 2021] 
  4. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2019. Goji Berries as a Potential Natural Antioxidant Medicine: An Insight into Their Molecular Mechanisms of Action. [Accessed 1 November 2021] 

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