Nutrition in the First Trimester: Building a Healthy Foundation

May 06, 2024

Nutrition in the First Trimester: Building a Healthy Foundation

If you have been trying to conceive for some time, finally getting that positive pregnancy test can be exhilirating - a whirlwind of emotions and exciting anticipation. Once the initial wave of excitement subsides, worry can set in. How do you protect this pregnancy? How do you nourish your body and the baby that grows within?

As you embark on the incredible journey of creating new life, prenatal nutrition becomes a powerful tool to support both you and your developing baby. This pivotal stage lays the groundwork for fetal development, and the nutrients you consume directly impact the health and well-being of your little one.

This blog post is here to guide you through the essentials of prenatal nutrition in the first trimester. We'll delve into key nutrients your body needs, explore dietary solutions for common pregnancy discomforts, and provide practical tips to fuel your amazing journey.

folate foods

Key Nutrients for a Healthy First Trimester

The first trimester is a period of rapid cell division and organ formation for your developing baby. To ensure this vital process happens smoothly, your body requires a specific set of nutrients in optimal amounts. Here are some of the essential players and why they matter:

1. Folate (Vitamin B9)

Crucial Role: This B vitamin plays a critical role in neural tube development, which forms the brain and spinal cord of your baby. Adequate folic acid intake significantly reduces the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida

Recommended Intake: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends consuming 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily, ideally starting at least three months before conception and continuing throughout the first trimester

Food Sources: Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, and oranges are excellent sources of folate.

Food: Serving: Folate (mcg):
Spinach (cooked) 1 cup 131
Lentils (cooked) 1/2 cup 180
Orange 1 fruit 52
Sunflower Seeds 1/4 cup 82 

Prenatal Vitamins: Due to the crucial role of folic acid in early pregnancy, most prenatal vitamins contain 400 mcg of folic acid.

Tip: When taking folate in food or supplement form, it's important to know that note all folate is created equal! To know the difference, read our full article on Folate Facts.

2. Iron

Increased Need: During pregnancy, your blood volume increases significantly to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your baby. Iron is an essential component of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body.

Consequences of Deficiency: Iron deficiency during pregnancy can lead to anemia, causing fatigue, shortness of breath, and impacting fetal development

Recommended Intake: ACOG recommends consuming 27 milligrams (mg) of iron daily throughout pregnancy.

Iron-Rich Foods: Lean red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, and dark leafy greens are all excellent sources of iron. However, it's important to choose iron sources with high bioavailability, meaning your body can easily absorb the iron.

Food Serving Iron (mg)
Beef, lean sirloin (cooked) 3 oz 2.7
Chicken breast (cooked) 3 oz 2.4
Salmon (cooked) 3 oz 2.9
Lentils (cooked) 1/2 cup 3.3
Spinach (cooked) 1 cup 2.7

Iron Absorption: Certain foods and beverages can hinder iron absorption. Coffee, tea, and calcium-rich foods like milk and yogurt can interfere with iron uptake. To optimize iron absorption, space out these items from iron-rich meals by at least an hour

3. Choline:

Emerging Importance: Choline is a relatively new essential nutrient gaining recognition for its critical role in fetal brain development. It plays a part in cell membrane formation, memory, and cognitive function

Potential Consequences of Deficiency: Inadequate choline intake during pregnancy may be linked to issues with fetal brain development and long-term cognitive function

Recommended Intake: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends an adequate intake of 450mg of choline daily for pregnant women.

Food Sources: Eggs, liver, fish, nuts, and dairy products are all good sources of choline.

Food  Serving Choline (mg)
Egg, large (cooked) 1 egg 147
Beef liver (cooked) 3 oz 350
Salmon (cooked) 3 oz 128
Almonds 1 oz 54
Milk, whole  1 cup 48

4. Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium: This mineral is crucial for fetal bone development and maintaining your own bone health during pregnancy

Recommended Intake: ACOG recommends consuming 1,000mg of calcium daily throughout pregnancy.

Food Sources: Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium. Additionally, leafy green vegetables and fortified alternatives like calcium-added plant milks can contribute

Vitamin D: This vitamin plays a vital role in calcium absorption and also contributes to fetal bone health. Aim to get sufficient Vitamin D through sun exposure (in moderation) and dietary sources like fatty fish and fortified foods

5. Important Macronutrients

A well-rounded prenatal diet should also incorporate a variety of other nutrients to support both you and your baby. These include:

Protein: protein is crucial for both mom and baby at this stage. It’s essential for building and repairing tissues, expansion of blood volume and growth of the maternal tissues, and for the growth of baby and placenta. Aim for lean protein sources like chicken, fish, beans, and lentils.

Fiber-rich Carbohydrates: Including plenty of fiber in your diet from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps with digestion and prevents constipation, a common pregnancy discomfort.

Healthy Fats: Essential fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids) are vitally important as they are building blocks for babies’ brain, eyes (retina) and nervous system. Aim for sources like avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

Hydration: Drinking plenty of water throughout the day is crucial for overall health and helps prevent constipation.

Remember, by incorporating a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all food groups, you can ensure your body receives the essential building blocks for a healthy pregnancy.

morning sickness

Navigating Common First Trimester Discomforts with Food

The first trimester can bring a wave of exciting changes, but it's also common to experience some less pleasant symptoms like morning sickness, fatigue, and constipation. Luckily, dietary strategies can play a significant role in managing these discomforts and promoting a more comfortable pregnancy.

1. Morning Sickness

Feeling nauseous or experiencing vomiting, often referred to as morning sickness, is a frequent complaint during early pregnancy. While the exact cause is unknown, hormonal fluctuations are likely culprits. Here are some dietary tips to combat morning sickness:

Eat smaller meals more often: Instead of three large meals, opt for smaller portions spread throughout the day. This keeps your stomach from getting too empty, which can trigger nausea.

Bland, easy-to-digest foods: Choose bland, easily digestible foods like crackers, toast, bananas, or applesauce when you're feeling nauseous. These options are gentler on your stomach and less likely to trigger vomiting.

Keep a water bottle on hand: Take small sips of water or ginger tea throughout the day. Dehydration can worsen nausea, so staying hydrated is key.

Embrace ginger: Ginger has natural anti-nausea properties. Include ginger in your diet through ginger tea, adding a touch of grated ginger to stir-fries or smoothies, or sucking on ginger candies.

Acupressure wristbands: Acupressure techniques like acupressure wristbands may also offer some relief from nausea. 

    2. Fatigue

    Feeling utterly exhausted is another common experience during the first trimester. This is often due to hormonal changes, particularly an increase in progesterone, which can induce feelings of sleepiness. Here are some dietary strategies to combat fatigue:

    Iron-Rich Foods: Fatigue can be a symptom of iron deficiency. Ensure you're incorporating iron-rich foods like lean red meat, poultry, fish, beans, and lentils into your diet (as discussed previously).

    Complex Carbohydrates: Choose complex carbohydrates like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and quinoa for sustained energy. These foods release glucose slowly into your bloodstream, keeping your energy levels stable throughout the day.

    Protein + Healthy Fats: Include protein and healthy fats in every meal and snack. Protein helps you feel satiated and prevents blood sugar crashes, while healthy fats provide lasting energy. Examples include nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil.

      3. Constipation

      The hormonal changes of pregnancy can slow down your digestion, leading to constipation. Here are some dietary tips to keep things moving smoothly:

      Increase Fiber Intake: Fiber helps add bulk to your stool and promotes regularity. Focus on incorporating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet.

      Hydration: Drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day helps soften stool and makes it easier to pass.

      Prunes or Prune Juice: Prunes are a natural laxative and can be helpful in managing constipation. Include a few prunes or a small glass of prune juice in your diet

      Additional Tip: Gentle exercise, when you feel up to it, can also help stimulate bowel movements.

      By incorporating these dietary strategies, you can alleviate some common first-trimester discomforts and experience a more comfortable pregnancy journey.

      meal plan for pregnancy

      Sample Meal Plan for the First Trimester

      Planning your meals in advance can be a lifesaver during the busy first trimester. Below is a sample daily meal plan that incorporates the key nutrients discussed earlier and provides a variety of delicious and nourishing options.

      • Scrambled Eggs with Spinach and Whole-Wheat Toast: Eggs are a fantastic source of protein and choline, while spinach adds folate and iron. Toast provides complex carbohydrates for sustained energy.
      • Greek Yogurt with Berries and Granola: Greek yogurt offers protein and calcium, while berries are packed with antioxidants. Granola adds fiber and healthy fats for satiety.
      • Salmon Salad with Mixed Greens: Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and vitamin D, while mixed greens provide fiber and folate. Dress your salad with a light vinaigrette.
      • Lentil Soup with Whole-Wheat Bread: Lentils are a great source of plant-based protein and iron, while the soup base offers hydration and vegetables add essential nutrients. Whole-wheat bread provides additional fiber.
      • Chicken Stir-Fry with Brown Rice and Vegetables: Chicken offers protein, and stir-frying allows you to include a variety of colorful vegetables for vitamins and fiber. Brown rice adds complex carbohydrates for sustained energy.
      • Baked Sweet Potato with Black Beans and Avocado: Sweet potatoes are loaded with beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A), while black beans provide plant-based protein and fiber. Avocado adds healthy fats and creaminess.
      Snacks (choose 2-3 options throughout the day):
      • Apple slices with almond butter
      • Cottage cheese with berries
      • Carrot sticks with hummus
      • Handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit
      • Yogurt parfait with granola and fruit

      This is just a sample plan, and you can adjust it based on your preferences and dietary needs. Don't hesitate to experiment and find healthy options you enjoy!

      Need more support? A qualified prenatal nutritionist can provide personalized advice tailored to your specific needs and preferences. They can help you address any dietary concerns you may have and create a pregnancy nutrition plan that supports your health and your baby's development.

      Remember, you are not alone on this incredible journey! By taking charge of your prenatal nutrition and prioritizing your well-being, you're laying the foundation for a healthy pregnancy and a thriving baby. Embrace the changes, listen to your body, and enjoy the beautiful process of creating new life!

      pregnant woman eating breakfast


      1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2020). Nutrition During Pregnancy.
      2. American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2020). Folic Acid.
      3. American Pregnancy Association. (2023, January 25). Morning Sickness: Relief and Remedies.
      4. American Society for Nutrition. (2016, September). Choline: An Essential Nutrient for Mothers and Babies.
      5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2023, March 17). Spina Bifida.
      6. Gemini (Large Language Model). Feed Fertility Blog (2024).
      7. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Iron-Rich Plant-Based Foods.
      8. Linus Pauling Institute. (2022, February 2). Choline.
      9. Mayo Clinic. (2023, March 2). Constipation During Pregnancy.
      10. Mayo Clinic. (2023, February 15). Vitamin D.
      11. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2015). Choline. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Tables and Figures.
      12. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (2020, December 16). Ginger.
      13. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2022, April 28). Morning Sickness.
      14. National Osteoporosis Foundation. (n.d.). Calcium Rich Foods.
      15. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

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