Jan 11, 2024 • 12 min read

What to Eat in the First Trimester of Pregnancy

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 3/29/2023
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Eating well is important throughout your pregnancy, but the first trimester is the most critical period in your baby’s health and development. Every organ in the baby’s body begins to take shape during this phase. An adverse health issue in the first trimester can have a huge impact on your baby’s life moving forward.

Would you believe that eating well during pregnancy even affects the health of your grandkids and great-grandkids? Researchers in the field of epigenetics have learned that a poor diet during pregnancy can change the way a baby’s genes are expressed, and those altered genes can be passed down to future generations.

Yes, it is that important to eat healthily during pregnancy!

But don’t worry—you don’t have to learn epigenetics to feed your baby right. This guide goes over what to eat during the first trimester of pregnancy, which to avoid, and other tips for healthy nutrition during pregnancy. You’ll learn exactly why each nutrient is needed for optimal fetal development and how to get more support if you need it.

Crucial nutrients for the first trimester of pregnancy

“Despite all the jokes about ‘eating for two,’ the reality of the first trimester might be closer to prenatal vitamins, rice cakes, and ginger ale,” says Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro, RDN, one of Zaya Care’s dietitians. “Even women who manage to enjoy regular meals and snacks might not be following a balanced and nutritious way of eating.”

She suggests learning which nutrients are most important and finding foods that can provide them.

There are specific reasons why nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats are essential for the development of a healthy baby. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Folic acid. Folic acid or “folate” is one of the B vitamins that is critical for the closure of the baby’s neural tube. This tube forms the baby’s brain, skull, and spinal column. Without adequate folic acid early in pregnancy, the risk for neural tube defects like spina bifida increases. Many grains, flour, and cereals have added folic acid. “Our food supply is fortified with folic acid,” says Eziquiel-Shriro, “but folate can still be low in someone who is gluten-free, has Celiac disease, or uses certain long-term medications.” 
  • Calcium. Your bones and those of your baby need calcium for strength and other functions. Calcium is best absorbed when accompanied by vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D come from milk; however, cereals, other dairy products, and vegetables also have this mineral.
  • Vitamin D. This is called the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies make it when exposed to sunlight. It is a common supplement in fortified dairy products but is also in fish, eggs, cheese, and butter. “Research shows a relationship between low vitamin D and risk for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, preterm labor, and low birth weight,” says Eziquiel-Shriro.
  • Iron. Iron is key to making blood, which will carry oxygen to the baby. “Low iron levels are more common in early pregnancy if the woman had heavy periods before pregnancy, is vomiting often because of morning sickness, or not getting enough iron from their diet plus prenatal vitamins,” says Eziquiel-Shriro.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids come from fatty fish like salmon, chia, and other seeds. These fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, are critical for the baby’s brain and eye development. “They also play a role in perinatal mood balance and preventing postpartum depression,” adds Eziquiel-Shriro. “Omega-3s are not in all prenatal vitamins, so if needed, pick one up separately.” 
  • DHA. This is one of the two main omega-3 fatty acids. You can get it from fish and other seafood. It is critical for healthy brain development, beginning in the first trimester, when the brain is newly formed.
  • Choline. Choline is essential for brain development; it is a nutrient you need as soon as the baby’s first brain cells appear. Sources of choline include eggs and beef or chicken liver. “Choline is important before, during, and after pregnancy. Despite its essential nutrient status, choline has yet to make it into all prenatal vitamins,” warns Eziquiel-Shriro. “Check your vitamins to be sure, aiming for at least 450 mg/day during pregnancy.” 
  • Vitamin B12. This vitamin plays a role in maintaining and developing a healthy nervous system, making it important for both mother and baby. Vegans, vegetarians, and women with a history of stomach surgeries or intestinal conditions like Crohn’s or Celiac disease are more likely to enter pregnancy with low B-12 levels. “Newer studies suggest that B-12 needs during pregnancy are actually triple the current recommendations,” explains Eziquiel-Shriro. “So plan to get it from your prenatal vitamins plus real food.” Learn more about the best foods to eat with Crohn’s disease here.
  • Protein. Proteins are essential for all living functions. Getting enough protein during pregnancy by eating lean meats, legumes, and other nonmeat sources supports all aspects of your baby’s health.
  • Vitamin C. Pregnancy is a good time to eat more fruits and veggies rich in vitamin C. It helps your baby make new connective tissue and allows you to absorb iron more efficiently.
  • Iodine. Iodine is critical to thyroid gland function. The thyroid gland manages hormone signals that control key bodily functions like metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature. A low iodine level could increase your baby’s risk of birth defects, nerve diseases, brain damage, and stillbirth. “Most of our iodine comes from iodized salt,” explains Eziquiel-Shriro. “So, if you use sea salt and cook primarily from scratch, you may need to check your iodine levels.” 

While most doctors recommend prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, you should also seek out food sources of these important nutrients as soon as you know you are pregnant.

If you’re interested in getting support from a professional during your pregnancy, we can help you book an appointment with a prenatal dietitian who accepts your insurance here at Zaya Care. 90% of Zaya Care patients pay $0 for one-on-one nutritional counseling with our Registered Dietitians.

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Best foods to eat during the first trimester of pregnancy

There is no perfect list of foods to eat during the first trimester. You can often keep eating the foods you already love. Some foods, however, are especially healthy and beneficial for you and your baby. Here are a few of the best foods to eat when pregnancy in the first trimester:

  • Whole grains. Whole grain rice, pasta, and bread are rich in folate and offer fiber to help improve bowel function. Fiber also helps sugars absorb more gradually, which helps reduce blood sugar spikes after meals.
  • Lean meats. Protein is found in all types of meat. Lean meats are best as they contain less saturated fat.
  • Fruits. Most fruits have vitamin C and phytonutrients essential for optimal health. Berries, for example, have antioxidants not found in most other foods. Aim for fruits of varied colors.
  • Vegetables. Like fruits, vegetables have tons of healthful ingredients. Besides vitamins and minerals, most vegetables have phytonutrients that help your baby grow and develop.
  • Yogurt & other dairy products. Dairy products are excellent sources of vitamin D and calcium to help your baby’s bones and teeth grow and develop.
  • Kale. Kale is a leafy green that has tons of fiber and nutrients. Kale is an excellent source of folate, vitamin B6, and vitamins K, C, and A. It also contains an omega-3 fatty acid that supports eye health.
  • Bananas. Bananas are high in potassium, which will help you maintain healthy blood pressure. Potassium also helps offset swelling caused by sodium/salt retention.  
  • Beans & lentils. Beans and lentils are great sources of protein and fiber. A pot of lentil or bean soup can be comforting and may help you gain protein without the saturated fat found in meats.
  • Flaxseed, canola, or soybean oil. These have omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce the risk of preterm birth and help your baby have a more optimal birth weight.
  • Spinach. This is a leafy green vegetable that has loads of vitamin C and iron. Iron helps you and your baby make red blood cells. All dark, leafy greens are good food choices because they contain folate.
  • Fish. Fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids and protein; however, you should eat just 2 servings per week. Avoid tuna, mackerel, tilefish, and swordfish because they tend to be high in mercury. Cod, shrimp, and salmon are better choices.

>> Find a prenatal nutritionist that accepts your insurance

Foods to avoid during the first trimester of pregnancy

There are some foods you shouldn’t eat during pregnancy. Some foods are simply not helpful to eat, while others are potentially risky to consume when carrying your baby.

Here are foods not to eat during the first trimester:

  • Highly processed foods. Processed foods include baked goods from the store, boxed meals, and packaged snacks. These contain preservatives, dyes, and other substances that are detrimental to our health or have unknown health effects.
  • Fried & fatty foods. Fried foods are calorie-dense but have very little nutrition. Fatty foods fill you up and leave less room for healthier foods. They can also contribute to heartburn during pregnancy, which is very common. It’s also worth noting that extremely fat-heavy diets like keto aren’t safe during pregnancy.
  • Sugary drinks. Sugary drinks cause blood sugar spikes and raise insulin levels. This promotes weight gain without supplementing nutrition. If you want some sweetness, try adding some fruit juice to sparkling water.
  • Alcohol. No amount of alcohol is considered safe in pregnancy. Alcohol damages your baby’s health and can lead to any number of birth defects.
  • Deli meat. Deli meats like sliced turkey, sliced ham, and salami can carry Listeria, which is a bacterium that can be fatal to you or your growing baby.
  • Fish with mercury. The larger the fish, the more likely it is to have eaten other fish and have built up mercury in its tissues. Predator fish include tilefish, shark, tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish. Avoid these during pregnancy as mercury is a heavy metal that can damage your baby’s development.
  • Raw or undercooked fish & meat. Undercooked meat and fish could carry bacteria and parasites that cause major birth defects and can even be lethal to your baby.

>> Find a prenatal nutritionist that accepts your insurance

Tips for what to eat during the first trimester if you’re dealing with morning sickness

Most women experience nausea after eating early in pregnancy. Many also develop aversions to foods they may have enjoyed before becoming pregnant. Though your appetite may be diminished, food can actually help you feel better.

“Remember that it’s better to have something in your stomach than to go without eating or drinking,” says Eziquiel-Shriro. “Being dehydrated or very hungry can make you feel worse.”

This list of tips can help you eat healthy when dealing with nausea and food intolerances in the first trimester:

  • Avoid foods with strong odors. Foods that have strong smells can trigger nausea more than foods with little odor.
  • Select foods that are colder. Think about frozen smoothies and salads that have plenty of healthy nutrients for you to nibble on. These foods are less likely to cause nausea than foods that are hot and have stronger odors.
  • Use natural substances to reduce nausea. Peppermint, lemon, and ginger can reduce nausea and are completely safe to take during pregnancy. Try sucking on peppermints or eating a slice of pickled ginger to combat your stomach upset.
  • Have protein foods just before bed. Protein foods include eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, nut butters, tofu, yogurt, and cottage cheese.
  • Drink sparkling water. Carbonation can reduce the acidity in your stomach which may ease nausea. You may have heard sipping ginger ale or cola helps, but since it’s best to avoid sugary beverages, try sparkling water instead.
  • Aim for foods that are bland. Spicy foods are great, but the odors may be too strong, and the spices may upset your stomach. Bland foods like toast or crackers are easier to eat when you’re nauseated.
  • Frequent small meals are best. Large meals can cause heartburn and stomach upset. Try eating more frequent, smaller meals and regular snacks to keep your caloric intake on track.
  • Try foods with soft textures. Lots of fiber is great if you can tolerate it, but it slows the movement of your GI tract. Soft foods with low fiber content are best if you feel nauseated.
  • Snack on healthy foods. When choosing snacks to eat throughout the day, select those that are healthy (low in sugar and not processed). Avoid candy, potato chips, and cookies. Try nuts, cheese, yogurt, or flatbread with hummus instead. These offer nutrients not found in most “snack foods.”

One non-food-related tip Eziquiel-Shriro shares is to get some fresh air. “Air matters!” she says. “Stay away from stale orders, smoke, perfumed products, cleaning fluids, crowded places, or other areas without fresh air. Go for a walk outdoors, open the windows, turn on a fan.” 

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How many calories you should eat during your first trimester

You do not need to eat any more calories in the first trimester than are recommended for women who are not pregnant. The average woman should eat about 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day and that amount will suffice for pregnant women in the first trimester as well.

During pregnancy, you want those calories to pack as much nutritional punch as possible. Learning how many calories you need during each trimester and what’s considered optimal nutrition will help you add beneficial foods into your diet and swap out less desirable ones.

Fresh foods you make at home are preferred over processed foods you purchase at the grocery store or fast-food restaurants.

Write down what you normally eat and then try to swap out less healthy foods for healthier options. For example, French fries with your meal can sometimes be swapped for coleslaw.

Think about your beverages too. Coffee is okay in moderation but stay clear of sodas. Instead, find ways to drink more milk so you can get the calcium and vitamin D it contains.

>> Read more: Complications & symptoms of not eating enough during the first trimester

How working with a prenatal nutritionist can help during the first trimester

A prenatal nutritionist is a healthcare professional who specializes in helping women get optimal nutrition during pregnancy. A prenatal nutritionist can help during pregnancy by addressing morning sickness, food aversions, constipation, and heartburn—all common issues for pregnant women in the first trimester.

You can begin working with a nutritionist as soon as you know you are pregnant or even in the pre-conception days. Many health insurance plans cover prenatal nutritionists as part of maternity care.

Here at Zaya Care, we can match you with a prenatal nutritionist who can help you make sure you’re eating optimally during this crucial time. Best of all, we can help you find one that accepts your insurance and preferred visit type (online, in-person, etc.).

“During the first session, we typically review health history, diet, and lifestyle,” says Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro, RDN, one of Zaya Care’s prenatal dietitians. “From there, we design a personalized plan that reflects the latest science, the wisdom of traditional wellness practices, and knowledge provided by your own self-awareness.” Nutrition specialists like Eziquiel-Shriro can also make sure you’re on track to gain the optimal amount of weight for your body.

Working with a prenatal nutritionist is a great way to start your baby’s development on the best possible footing.

>> Find a prenatal nutritionist that accepts your insurance

First trimester eating FAQs

What are the best foods to eat early in pregnancy?
In the first trimester, you’ll want to eat foods high in vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats. Carbohydrates should come in the form of complex carbs (like whole grains and sweet potatoes) rather than sugars (like candy or cookies). You and your baby will benefit from fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats as the basis of your diet.

Should I take supplements early in pregnancy?
Your doctor may recommend prenatal vitamins as soon as you know you are pregnant. Even if your diet is healthy and balanced, you still need to follow this recommendation. Folate, iron, calcium, DHA, and iodine are often not available in large enough amounts through food alone. You may need extra supplementation to get these nutrients.

What foods can help with nausea and vomiting early in pregnancy?
Ginger and peppermint can relieve nausea in early pregnancy. Eating small, bland foods helps you gain nutrients even if you are nauseous. Cold foods and those without a lot of aromas are also good to try during this time.

Can I diet during the first trimester?
No amount of intentional weight loss is recommended in pregnancy, even in the first trimester. Talk to your healthcare provider and see a prenatal nutritionist if you need to avoid gaining excessive amounts of weight during pregnancy.

Is it ok to lose weight during the first trimester?
Many women are concerned about unintentional weight loss in the first trimester due to loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. Your baby will likely not be affected by mild amounts of loss as long as you gain the nutrients you need through supplements or careful meal planning. You should never intentionally lose weight at any point in your pregnancy.

What weeks are included in the first trimester?
The first trimester goes from the first day of your last period (called week one even though you aren’t pregnant yet) until the end of week 12. By this convention, you are most likely at week four when you miss your period. Whenever it is that you find out you’re pregnant, start focusing on nutrition, and you will improve your baby’s chances of healthy outcomes.

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Christine Traxler MD is a family physician, lifelong writer, and author with a special interest in mental health, women’s healthcare, and the physical after-effects of psychological trauma. As a contributing writer and editor for numerous organizations, she brings a holistic focus to her work that emphasizes healing and wellness through daily self-care, connecting with others, and setting stepwise goals toward achieving more balanced and authentic lives.