When I was pregnant for the first time, I read what I thought to be one of the greatest perspectives on eating during pregnancy. Nina Planck, author of “Real Food” and “Real Food for Mother and Baby,” wrote, “You have about forty weeks to build a baby.”
I loved two things about her statement. First, it made me feel as though I had some control over building a healthy baby, which ultimately empowered me to eat well to try to build the healthiest baby that I could. Second, I appreciated her message that building a baby is not a sprint, but rather a 40-week-long marathon. This alleviated some of the pressure that everything I did had to be perfect in order for my baby to grow. A few oversized bowls of ice cream, some lazy days without exercise or a late night out without proper shut-eye would not break my baby. This was a relief.
Although playing the long game of pregnancy takes the pressure off each individual meal, there are undeniably certain nutrients that are most vital to a baby’s healthy growth. It is recommended that a mother-to-be obtain extra of these during her pregnancy.
Essential nutrients during pregnancy:
1. Iron helps carry oxygen to every cell in the body, and helps strengthen the mother’s blood that carries the baby’s food to the placenta. In fact, pregnant women produce almost 50 percent more blood while pregnant, and iron is crucial to producing these healthy red blood cells. Iron supplements are not absorbed as easily as the iron in whole foods such as red meat, fish, poultry, clams, oysters and blackstrap molasses. Vitamin C is required for the absorption of iron, so include citrus fruits and tomatoes in your meals. Green vegetables such as spinach and kale provide a vegetarian form of iron that is less easily absorbed by the body.
2. Protein cannot be stored by the baby so is essential that it is ingested on a regular basis, ideally daily. Good sources of protein include salmon, chicken, eggs, beans, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
3. Calcium-rich foods are needed for bone and muscle growth, and to keep the baby’s circulatory and nervous systems running optimally. Foods with calcium include salmon, leafy greens, almonds, chickpeas and beans.
4. B Vitamins, especially folic acid, help to build the spinal cord and brain. Folic acid can be found in leafy green vegetables, eggs, Brewer’s yeast and avocados.
5. DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is integral for brain development,especially in fetuses. 60 percent of the brain is made from structural fat, the omega-3 fatty acids being the most essential. DHA comes from wild salmon and other fatty fish, and even pure fish oil supplements. If you are a vegetarian and choose not to eat fish or fish oil, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds have another omega-3 fat called ALA, 5 to 10 percent of which gets converted to DHA.
6. Other vitamins have important jobs. Vitamin A constructs organs such as the heart; vitamin C encourages tissue growth; vitamin D builds bones and boosts immune health; and vitamin E protects the baby’s cells. All of these vitamins are particularly critical in the first trimester.
In fact, Planck tidily segments pregnancy eating into the three trimesters. In the first trimester she says, “Your baby’s parts — her tiny liver, lungs, toes — are made of micronutrients called vitamins, so you hardly need to eat anything extra in the first trimester. Just eat well.” In the second trimester, “Your baby’s structure — his bone and muscle — are made of calcium and protein, so have plenty of both the second trimester.” Then in the third, “Your baby’s brain is made of fish, so it’s important to eat plenty of seafood at the end.”
Oversimplified? Obviously. But a good place to start, and somewhere I felt I could focus when I was too tired to cook and too nauseated to eat. I reckoned that at least I could give the baby something it needed at that exact moment, even if I couldn’t prepare a formal meal before I had to go take a nap.
It is a common pregnancy myth that you need to eat for two. This is just not true, especially in the first trimester when your body and the baby do not require any additional calories. Even in the second and third trimesters, you need just a few hundred extra calories. The progesterone you produce while pregnant makes your body more efficient at absorbing nutrients, and the best way to get your baby the most nutrition is to eat a variety of whole foods.
Another pregnancy fiction is that eating junk food is better than eating nothing at all. Junk food provides no nutritional benefit to the baby and can deplete your body of the essential nutrients you have already stored. This doesn’t mean you have to abstain from processed food completely; the joy you may derive from occasional bowls of ice cream, or the morning sickness relief you may feel from an occasional ginger ale is something to enjoy, not regret. Just remember moderation wins, and whole foods are always a better choice.
Ignore any claims that you cannot eat fish while pregnant; those omega-3 fats in fish are priceless for brain development. It is a smart idea to stick to cooked fish and limit the number of mercury-heavy bottom-feeding fish such as tuna, swordfish, and mackerel.
You most certainly may remain a vegetarian while pregnant, just double check that you are getting enough protein, iron and calcium from sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and avocado.
Foods you should avoid:
- Deli meat that may have nitrates and bacteria.
- Raw meat, fish or undercooked eggs.
- Too much caffeine. You want to stay under 300 mg. of caffeine a day.
- Too much processed sugar or too many artificial sweeteners.
- Herbal supplements that have not been approved by your doctor.
I’ve always wanted to run a full 26.2-mile race, although in some ways I’ve completed my own kind of marathons by building three healthy babies. And I, like all other parents with kids in the nest, am in the middle of another type of marathon trying to feed my children now that they are older. Just like pregnancy, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and boy, does it take stamina.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, September 21, 2017.