Expectant parents need more support to follow a healthy diet, new research reveals

 1 January 2024 1 February 2023
1 February 2023

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire are calling for better information on diet and nutrition to be made available to expectant parents, as a new report reveals conflicting advice, mixed messages and barriers to healthy eating.

Commissioned by The Food Foundation, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the qualitative research collected the experiences of parents and expectant parents across the UK, as well as the views of professionals working within healthcare, nutrition and food aid sectors. Researchers found that while most expectant parents have a general awareness of healthy food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, many are under-informed about the necessary nutrients and portion sizes, or are confused by the range of different dietary advice. As one participant stated,

There’s so much information floating around there, but actually not a lot of robust, good information. So, there is a lot of reliance on social media, magazines, and advertising. There’s not a lot coming from a research or professional background, it’s all about what’s fashionable”.

Some participants cited the idea of ‘eating for two’ as a contributor to misunderstandings about appropriate portion size; while others pointed to the focus on the UK’s obesity epidemic, with other consequences of poor diet being overlooked. Overall, participants felt that pregnancy dietary guidance emphasised food to be avoided – such as soft cheese and raw eggs – in place of more positive advice on what foods they should be eating.

The report also highlights the tendency for publicly available resources to focus on Western cuisines, with little consideration of cultural differences, despite the UK’s diverse population.

Researchers examined the sources of information that expectant parents access for dietary advice. Although the NHS provides websites and leaflets, parents did not always feel engaged by these, and were more likely to seek information from more familiar but not necessarily professional sources, for example social media or friends and family. The findings underline the need for healthcare services to embrace online, accessible platforms that provide accurate and trustworthy information for expectant parents.

The report also identifies a wide range of barriers to healthy diet, encompassing busy lifestyles, the convenience of ready meals, a lack of education about cooking, pregnancy symptoms such as nausea and cravings, affordability of food, and the benefits cap for those expecting their third child.

Dr Lisa Whiting, Associate Professor at the University of Hertfordshire and lead researcher on the report, commented: “The need for good nutrition begins at the pre-conception stage and should continue throughout pregnancy and into every stage of life. It’s clear from our research that during pre-conception and pregnancy, many people in the UK remain either uninformed about good nutrition, or are unable to follow through on the advice they receive.

“However, our research shows that expectant parents are actively seeking this information, so there are opportunities to capitalise on this and make real improvements. Our recommendations set out some key priorities, which need appropriate funding behind them to make a tangible difference to the health and nutrition of expectant parents and those planning pregnancies”.

These recommendations include:

  • A stronger focus on positive healthy eating habits, not just on restricting and removing ‘bad’ foods.
  • Enhanced training for health practitioners to provide individually focused advice and make the most of contact time with parents to discuss health and nutrition.
  • Clear, consistent and engaging resources that provide information on a more diverse range of diets and cuisines.
  • Clarity on what a healthy diet in pregnancy really looks like, taking into account cultural differences and financial barriers.
  • A ‘life course’ approach to healthy eating, to ensure people understand the importance of nutrition throughout their lives, whether or not a pregnancy is planned.

Dr Whiting added: “Implementing these improvements will certainly bring challenges. Every expectant parent is different, of course, and there is a myriad of individual reasons why someone might be able or unable to access a nutritious diet. But we can’t ignore the overriding challenges that we observed in our research, related to food affordability, confusing information, and the provision – or lack – of consistent professional advice.

“Without a good diet, the UK is in danger of having a future population who are more likely to develop a range of health problems, so this should be a priority area for healthcare services and government”.

This research contributed to the Food Foundation’s newly released briefing, Preconception, Pregnancy and Healthy Weight in Childhood. The full report, ‘Gaining insight into food, diet practices and nutrition during the early year’s lifespan: pre-conception and pregnancy’, is available to read on the University of Hertfordshire website.


Press Office news@herts.ac.uk +44 (0)1707 285 770