Intuitively, most moms know that what they eat will have a significant impact on their developing fetus. Researchers agree those 9 months of pregnancy are the most consequential months of our lives, permanently influencing the wiring of our brain and the functions of our heart and liver. Special preconception and pregnancy diets especially in traditional cultures have always emphasized eating foods that are particularly rich in certain nutrients known to promote healthy growth and development.
No mom wants to do anything that might risk the health of her future child. But when the information you get from well-meaning doctors and nutritionists isn’t up to date, that’s what’s happening. We’re seeing childhood obesity, diabetes, allergies and asthma. Not to mention a growing society of children with behavioral issues.
Not surprisingly, during pregnancy your body has increased nutritional needs. This makes sense because you’re now eating for more than one. It’s probably what led us to the old adage “eating for two”. However, the old saying isn’t entirely correct. Your body does need more quality macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins and water) and micronutrients (calcium, folate, and iron) during pregnancy. Except the ones you actually need might not be what you’ve heard.
Nutrition Myths Every Expecting Mother Should Know About
Here’s five nutrition myths that every expecting mother should know. The take home message is simply to trust that real food is optimal in pregnancy. Any “expert” who tries to convince you that you need fortified cereal, must avoid some of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods and should go low fat while you watch your weight during pregnancy, hasn’t dug deep enough into the research.
1. A Low-Fat Diet Cannot Be (scientifically) Healthy
A baby’s brain is 70% fat so limiting mom’s dietary fat means limiting baby brain development. In fact high-fat foods (especially of animal origin) have always been central to reproductive health in traditional cultures. Examples of these foods include foods eggs, organ meats, tallow, and fatty fish. They provide an abundance of vitamins A, D, E, and K and omega-3, DHA, that are needed in higher amounts during pregnancy.
Restricting fat limits your (and more importantly your baby’s) access to these nutrients. The classic advice to “eat lean meat” ends up limiting the quantity of glycine in the diet, an amino acid that is critical for normal cardiovascular development and tissue development in a growing baby. The primary sources of glycine are the skin, bones, and connective tissue of meat, poultry, and fish. So, enjoy the crisp skin on your chicken, relish some yummy pulled pork, and don’t trim the fat off your steak.
Clearly, the whole idea of eating a low-fat diet, pregnant or not, is not founded on solid scientific evidence.
2. Eating High Carb is Actually Physically Challenging
Eating for two is physically impossible. With an ever-increasing sized baby on board, all of your organs are being squashed under your ribs. There’s simply not the room to eat more than you normally would. Eating nutrient dense food is really the only way to get the energetic nutrients you and the baby need during pregnancy.
However, this doesn’t mean cutting carbs either! The truth is that nothing is good or bad just in or out of balance and too many carbs or calories is going to make things out of balance whether you’re pregnant or not.
If you’re going to count anything while pregnant count nutrients! As parents we become, if not already, conscious of lowering our sugar intake more than ever during pregnancy. Leveling out our macronutrient intake instead of going high carb during pregnancy means lowering your sugar intake.
3. Bone Broth and Liver are the Super Foods of Prenatal Vitamins
A few decades ago, doctors actually encouraged mothers to consume liver throughout pregnancy. Nowadays we’re often warned against it because liver is high in vitamin A. Studies on synthetic vitamin A (from supplements) show that too much can lead to birth defects. So, following that simple logic, liver should be avoided. Unless considering the one third of pregnant women don’t consume enough vitamin A. So, eating liver for them would actually be hugely beneficial. What’s the right way to go?
It turns out that food-sourced vitamin A does not have the same toxicity as synthetic vitamin A supplements, especially when it’s consumed with adequate vitamin D and vitamin K, both of which happen to be found in liver. Liver is also rich in choline, which is necessary for normal brain and eye development and the prevention of neural tube defects. In addition, liver boasts high levels of folate, all the B vitamins, iron, zinc, and more. It’s quite literally like eating your prenatal vitamins!
4. Sunshine and Happiness: When Do We Not Need Them?
Thinking it’s best to stay out of the sun while pregnant? Think again. It’s hard not to consider the importance of sunlight when you’re thinking about the importance of vitamin D. The nutritional therapist in me immediately thinks about the importance of vitamin D for normalizing your cholesterol levels. Considering the link between your cholesterol levels and breast milk, the milk from a healthy mother has about 50 to 60 percent of its energy (kilocalories) as fat. The cholesterol in human milk supplies an infant with close to six times the amount most adults consume from their food. Vitamin D plays a role in lung development, protecting the newborn and probably a much larger role in fetal development than currently understood due to its interaction with vitamin A.
5. Fish and Fats are Non-Negotiable
One of the main dietary recommendations accompanying a low fat diet when pregnant concerns the avoidance of fish. Honestly, I’d probably agree for fish higher up the food chain who are more likely to contain mercury like shark, orange roughy, swordfish and ling. Unborn babies are most sensitive to the effects of mercury, particularly during the third and fourth months of gestation. So, mom’s avoiding eating fish that contain high levels of mercury makes sense. But complete avoidance of fish makes no sense, especially during pregnancy.
Fish are especially nutrient dense in essential omega 3 fatty acids. These are essential because our bodies cannot make these fats although we need them in our diet. It turns out the conversion of ALA to DHA in humans is incredibly poor. Plus, if your diet is high in omega-6 (which happens to be concentrated in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils where you obtain ALA which a lot of us have been adhering to following advice toward these oils), this conversion rate drops.
Interestingly a diet high in saturated fat, however, improves this conversion rate, but the truth is… no matter what, you cannot provide enough DHA for your growing baby if you do not eat DHA directly. The best source of DHA, by far, is fish as described above. If you do not eat fish, you can take fish oil, cod liver oil, or algae oil to obtain DHA. You’ll also find smaller amounts of DHA in eggs from pastured chickens and meat from pasture-raised or grass-fed animals (but only if you eat the yolks and fattier cuts of meat).
So, if you feel good basing your diet on pasture-raised meats (including organ meat), eggs, wild-caught fish, a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit (and maybe some grass-fed dairy if that works with your body), rest assured, you are providing your baby with optimal nutrition! You’ll also ensure the quality of your breast milk and while baby gets first dibs on your nutrient supply, you’ll be looking after the both of you.