The importance of proper nutrition during pregnancy and postpartum seems fairly obvious, but I’m always amazed by the difference between what women KNOW to be healthy and what they ACTUALLY eat during pregnancy. Let’s be logical for one minute… Your baby grows inside your body. Your body is sustained and regenerated by the foods you eat. So, if I’m eating an Oreo, a little part of my body becomes the Oreo. If I’m eating an avocado, a little part of my body is becoming the avocado. This can translate easily. If you want your baby to have the best chance of being created with the strongest organs, tissues, and cells, wouldn’t you want to put the most nutrient dense, whole foods in your body?
Over the last 15 years, I have had a lot of opportunities to see or hear about what women eat during pregnancy. I had a woman come to me recently telling me about how much anxiety she has been having. When I asked her to tell me about what she ate in the last 24 hours, here is what she said.
“I woke up yesterday at 7am. At 9:30am, I had a half a bagel with cream cheese and a glass of orange juice. At 11am, I was starving, so I had a small bowl of cereal with a few nuts and skim milk. At 1pm, I was so hungry again, so I had a turkey sandwich with cheese, some chips and a piece of fruit. At about 4pm I had a Cliff bar, and for dinner I had a chicken breast with rice and steamed broccoli. I have to admit that I had some ice cream about an hour before bed. I just needed something sweet. But I’ve been careful not to eat too much fat so I don’t gain excessive weight.”
To many, this diet doesn’t seem so bad. Not a huge amount of processes food, relatively low fat…she even had fruit, vegetable, and protein.
However, this type of diet lacks the essential nutrients for sustaining and growing an optimal pregnancy. AND, this type of diet has “BLOOD SUGAR PROBLEMS all over it…. no wonder she is feeling so anxious.
What she needed was to start her day after a night of “fasting” with some PROTEIN and FAT. Her diet completely lacked protein and fat. Here is how I suggested that she modify her diet. Start the day by eating two eggs, 1/4th of an avocado, a half piece of whole grain toast with butter, and a half a piece of fruit within an hour of waking. That will last her a good 4 hours. Get rid of the breakfast foods that have no nutrient value, and cause blood sugar crashes in just an hour or two. For lunch, she could have some fresh turkey with cheese, a salad with olive oil. For snack, a piece of fruit with nuts, or hummus with veggies. For dinner, some dark meat chicken (that’s where the nutrients are!) some steamed broccoli with butter, and some roasted sweet potato. That should just about do it! And if she needs a sweet treat at the end of the day, a roasted piece of fruit with cinnamon, topped with creme fraiche. YUMMY!
Needless to say, I saw her 2 weeks later and she said that after changing her diet, her anxiety was nearly gone, the swelling in her feet had gone down, she was sleeping better, and feeling happier about being pregnant.
So this is just one layer of why nutrition is so important during pregnancy.
If you’d like to read more about nutrition during pregnancy and postpartum, please read the following by Katie Louderback:
Pregnancy Nutrition, by Katie Louderback, Nutrition Educator
This is some basic information about nutrition during pregnancy. Keep in mind that because all of our bodies are unique, our individual diet will also be unique based on our preferences, our constitution and any health factors.
Digestion and good bacteria: Our nutrition begins with the way we digest foods. We can eat nutritionally packed foods, but if we are not digesting those foods effectively then we are not absorbing many of the nutrients. Taking probiotics everyday during pregnancy is a great way to ensure that we have ‘good’ gut bacteria allowing for proper digestion and absorption and a healthy immune system. Also, eating naturally cultured and fermented foods can help increase the good bacteria in our gut, thereby improving digestion and absorption of nutrients. Examples of these foods include: cultured dairy products such as yogurt (buy yogurts without the added sugar!) and kefir as well as sauerkraut.
Organic Fruits and Vegetables: Eating organic fruits and vegetables takes on special importance during pregnancy. Organic foods are not just pesticide free but also contain more vitamins and minerals from the soil. These fruits and vegetables carry the vitamins and minerals necessary for your growing baby. Eating a variety of them everyday will ensure you are getting the nutrients you and your baby need. Try eating dark green leafy vegetables such as chard, collards, kale and spinach on a regular basis (everyday if possible) as these are especially nourishing for pregnancy.
Fat: Healthy fats are an essential part of pregnancy for mama and baby as fats are the building blocks of your baby’s brain. It is great to have a variety of fats in the diet from natural food sources: olives, eggs, nuts, dairy products, avocados, fish, olive oil, coconut oil, meats, etc. The recommendation is to eat whole dairy products (instead of low fat or non-fat) especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Protein: Many experts suggest between 80-100grams of protein a day for pregnant mamas. To put it in some context: one chicken breast has about 30 grams of protein. How much protein your body needs each day will be different for each pregnant woman. Having a variety of protein rich foods at each meal is a good way to be certain that you’re eating enough, rather than counting grams.
- Dairy Products and Eggs: If you are a vegetarian then dairy products and eggs can be a great source of complete protein. If your body doesn’t respond well to cow’s milk you can try goat’s milk dairy products. Consider purchasing either pastured eggs or if not pastured, eggs that are fed diets high in Omega 3’s. These eggs provide more of the essential fatty acids your body needs.
- Organic and grass fed Meats: Meat (especially red meat and liver) can be a great source of iron during pregnancy. Because a pregnant woman’s blood volume doubles on average, the iron in meat assists in this process.
- Wild Fish: Fish is an important food for pregnancy because it is vital for your baby’s brain growth. To avoid fish high in methyl-mercury, eat fish low on the food chain (as mercury tends to accumulate in the older and more carnivorous fish) or fish that are herbivores. These types of fish include: catfish, tilapia, fresh water trout, herring, sardines, and wild salmon.
- Soy: In its natural and traditional form soy can be a good food during pregnancy. These natural forms include: tempeh, tofu, and miso. The traditional preparation process makes these soy products more digestible.
- Grains and Legumes: Grains, such as quinoa and brown rice, are a great source of protein and dietary fiber. Since they have not been processed, they contain lots of vitamins and minerals. Soaking grains (in water and whey or a tablespoon of vinegar) for at least 8 hours or up to 24 renders them more absorbable.
Vitamins and minerals that are especially important during pregnancy and some foods that contain them:
- Vitamin A: Vegetable sources contain pro-vitamin A that can usually be converted to Vitamin A in the body (if fat is present) and these sources include: carrots, collard greens, dried apricots, kale, sweet potatoes, spinach, mustard greens, mangoes and cantaloupe. Animal sources that contain vitamin A include: dairy products, beef and chicken liver or a supplement of cod liver oil
- Vitamin C: Red chili peppers, sweet red and green peppers, kale, collard greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, strawberries, oranges, cabbage, grapefruit, mangoes, asparagus, cantaloupe
- Vitamin D: High quality dairy products, beef and chicken liver or a supplement of cod liver oil
- Calcium: High quality dairy products, broccoli, nuts, seeds (sesame, sunflower and pumpkin), olives, seaweed, and bone broths
- Sources of Folic Acid (also known as B9): liver and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and collards.
Other things to consider adding into your diet:
- A high quality prenatal vitamin
- Broths: Broths are fairly easy to make, they are mineral rich (like calcium) and easy to absorb. You can make stock from chicken, beef, or fish. You can drink them warm, use them as a base for soup or stews, or cook your grains with broth.
- Fish Oils or Cod Liver Oil: High quality fish oil supplements are especially important if you are not eating lots of fish as they are high in Omega 3 fats. Cod liver oil has less Omega 3 fats but is very high in vitamins A and D.
Things to avoid or limit in pregnancy:
- Sugar: Sugar has made its way into our diet in many forms and can deplete our body of vitamins and minerals. Our body utilizes our vitamins and minerals to process the sugar and if you are eating sugar you are ingesting food that might otherwise be nutritionally dense. So indulge every now and then but avoid eating large amounts of sugar each day. Use alternative sweeteners such as maple syrup and honey when possible.
- White flours: in breads, pastas, cereals, snack foods, etc: These have very little nutritional value and replace more nutritionally dense foods.
- Processed fats: In pregnancy, you are creating your baby’s brain with the fats in your diet. So, as much as possible, eat natural fats. Avoid or limit all highly processed oils such as corn, safflower, and soybean oil as well as all trans fats. These fats are highly processed and do harm to our bodies. Be aware that even if a label says “no trans fats” it can still contain up to one half of a gram per serving so look at the ingredients list and avoid any product that contains hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated or vegetable shortening.
- Soy protein isolate: This form of soy is not very digestible for our bodies and is found in many processed foods.
Katie Louderback, Nutrition Educator / Yoga Teacher
Individual nutrition counseling & Workshops for pregnancy and postpartum nutrition