Smart Snacking When You’re Pregnant
How to handle your cravings during pregnancy and get the extra nutrients you need
I downed at least one hard-boiled egg on the way to work every morning while pregnant, which experts say is a great nutrient-packed snack during pregnancy. But my downfall—and reason for my more-than-healthy level of weight gain during pregnancy—was my weakness for sweets. I gained 40 pounds instead of the 25 to 35 pounds recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people at a “normal weight.”
What I didn’t know about then is this trick that some nutrition experts say sometimes helps: Pairing carbs with protein, plus some water, could curb those cravings for cake, ice cream, and sugary fruit juice.
How to Handle Cravings
Especially when you’re pregnant, it can be easy to say it’s important to eat green leafy veggies, fruit, healthy fats, and whole grains, though it’s not always easy to do when whole chocolate ganache cakes stare you down in the bakery section of your grocery store. But that doesn’t need to be a source of shame.
“Cravings are a natural part of pregnancy, and may even help us meet nutrient needs. Instead of thinking of them as the enemy, let them guide you to find foods you enjoy that you can pair with whole foods, which are high in nutrients,” Goldberg says. For example, go ahead and eat a little bit of that chocolate, but pair it with some healthier fruits and nuts.
Handling the urge to eat ice cream by the pint is a little trickier. Amber Trejo, a registered dietitian and personal trainer in New York, suggests topping ice cream with toppings like crushed nuts to make it more satiating.
Portion control is also key. Aim for about half a cup or less of ice cream with no extra mix-ins (sorry, Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream ice cream), plus some berries or other fruit as an occasional treat, says Consumer Reports nutritionist Amy Keating. And bear in mind: If an ice cream is marketed as better for you, you may want to take those claims with a dose of skepticism. “I’d skip lower-fat or so-called ‘healthier’ ice creams that can have lots of processed ingredients,” Keating says.
In general, Trejo says avoiding sweets altogether can actually be a bad idea because it can lead to overeating if your willpower slips. “I do not think pregnant women should avoid sweets entirely, but shouldn’t ‘eat for two’ when it comes to sweets,” she says. As a healthier source of sugar, opt for berries and other whole fruits such as peaches, nectarines, and cherries.
It’s also normal to crave pickled foods such as pickled cucumbers, sauerkraut, and jalapeños, Trejo says. It’s okay to indulge in these in moderation, she says, but be mindful of their sodium content. Sodium can cause the body to retain fluids, which can cause puffiness, like what you’ll see when your feet swell. While you do need some sodium for your baby to grow, going overboard can raise your blood pressure, too, which can be especially risky during pregnancy.
“It’s okay to enjoy some, but maybe not the whole jar,” Trejo says. For a salty snack alternative, try air-popped popcorn with a little salt, or a handful of nuts. Or try making your own french fries or kale chips, that way you can control the amount of sodium you consume, Trejo says.
And know that cravings can be worsened by poor sleep or dehydration, so make sure to drink plenty of water and get enough sleep, which can be hard for some.
Nutrients You Need
The average adult doesn’t get enough calcium, vitamin D, and dietary fiber, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But during pregnancy, you’ll want more iron, iodine, choline, and other nutrients as well.
Iron: Extra iron while you’re pregnant can help prevent anemia, says Justine Chan, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. Your baby is using the iron you consume in order to grow, and you’ll need enough to help keep the both of you strong.
Iodine: Getting enough iodine is important for your baby’s brain development, and while people at reproductive age generally get enough of it, according to the USDA, some women, including those who don’t regularly consume dairy products, eggs, or seafood, or use iodized table salt, may not.
Choline: This nutrient is also important for your baby’s developing brain and nervous system. Experts agree that eggs are great sources of both iodine and choline, as well as protein. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, and a variety of fruits and veggies are also sources of choline.
Folic acid: The CDC says that all women of reproductive age should take 400 micrograms of folic acid as a dietary supplement each day in addition to consuming foods that are sources of folate, such as whole grains, leafy greens like kale or collard greens, and beans, such as black-eyed peas. This can help prevent certain major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine.
Dietary fiber: Fiber is one of those nutrients that just about everyone could use a little more of. When you’re pregnant, fiber is key to managing constipation, which can lead to hemorrhoids—and are common in pregnancy, Chan says.
Calcium and Vitamin D: Both help your baby develop strong bones. In addition to cow’s milk, fortified plant-based milks can provide both nutrients.
Good Go-to Snacks
“I encourage my clients to focus on protein and fiber when they are choosing a snack. This naturally encourages better blood sugar balance, meaning no energy crashes and more satisfaction from your food,” says Goldberg, the pregnancy dietitian.
Consider pairing the fiber from fruit, 100 percent whole-grain bread, or granola with protein from Greek yogurt or a stick of string cheese. If you’d like to have flavors from Asian or Latin cuisines in your prenatal snacking plans, Chan suggests a fruit such as dragonfruit or durian paired with edamame, a baked plantain with cheese, or a corn tortilla with stewed meat.
Or you can choose some of the suggestions below.
Avocados. Several of the nutritionists I spoke with praised avocados, and not just during pregnancy. They’re packed with protein, healthy fats, and fiber, so take that, avocado toast haters.
Eggs. If a plain hard-boiled egg seems boring to you, try putting it on a piece of 100 percent whole-grain toast with avocado, plus a sprinkle of hemp seeds or chia seeds, suggests Ryann Kipping, a pregnancy dietitian and author of "The Feel-Good Pregnancy Cookbook" (Rockridge Press, 2019). Or consider deviled eggs. For those seeking flavors you’ll find in Asian cuisine, Chan suggests pairing a hard-boiled egg with roasted seaweed.
Hummus. “Hummus has a lot of great qualities for anyone, pregnant or not pregnant,” says Natalie Brunoforte, a registered dietitian and personal trainer based in Murrieta, Calif. Because it’s made of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), it’s a great combo of healthy fats and protein. It’s also a source of fiber, folate, and other B vitamins, Brunoforte says. When you’re shopping, choose pasteurized hummus. Pasteurization reduces the risk of foodborne illness, which can be especially concerning if you’re pregnant. Or read how to make your own hummus.
Nuts and nut butter. “One of my favorite pregnancy snacks to help curb a sweet tooth is Greek yogurt with dark chocolate chips and some peanut butter,” says Trejo, who’s a dietitian and is also pregnant. That treat can give you a taste of what you’re craving, plus the protein and fiber to give you and your baby some of the nutrients you’ll need.