The New "Rules" of Eating When You're Pregnant
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You don't have to go down a search-engine rabbit hole to figure out what and how to eat. Antenatal nutrition is much simpler than that—our experts have got you.
- Many pregnant people avoid out-of-bounds foods but don't always stock up on superhealthy ones.
- Diet culture, unexpected cravings and nausea can all make navigating your eating plan really tough during pregnancy.
- To feel better physically and emotionally, you'll want to incorporate certain foods and eating habits into your antenatal routine.
Read on to learn more …
*This content is designed to inform and inspire, but it is not meant to diagnose, treat or give specific medical advice. Always check with your health care provider about how to stay healthy and safe before, during and after pregnancy.
No matter how you eat in "normal" life, pregnancy can send anyone back to the dietary drawing board. Can you have fish? Should you avoid coffee? What won't make your stomach turn? And according to a study published in Nutrients, while pregnant people frequently cut out what they consider harmful foods, they're less likely to up their intake of nutrient-dense ones—and that's a missed opportunity, say experts.
Instead of worrying about what you can't or shouldn't eat, shift your focus to incorporating more of the foods and habits that can make for a healthier and less stressful pregnancy, says Willow Jarosh, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City and coauthor of Healthy, Happy Pregnancy Cookbook. Here's how.
1. Eat often.
The most important part of any pregnancy diet is to feed yourself, says Jarosh. Diet culture (the toxic idea that there's a "right" way to eat, and that we're all supposed to look slim) would have us believe that we should be eating as little as possible and only when we're really hungry. If there's ever a time to throw that standard out, it's when you're doubling your blood volume, growing a whole new organ and creating an entire person—all while going through the daily struggles of just being human, says Jarosh. Bottom line: food is energy and should help you feel good, so fuel up frequently.
Snacking and eating smaller meals may be your moves if big meals are off the table during this time, whether that's because you're nauseous AF or your growing baby is shrinking the space in your abdomen, says Jarosh. Having yoghurt, string cheese or mixed nuts on deck can keep you satisfied and help you get fixes of key nutrients like calcium and protein. Or steal a trick from Amanda Williams, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn in Oakland, California: Cut a sandwich into triangles, and try to eat one triangle every couple of hours with fruit.
Throughout the day, work in vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower for fibre and folate (add hummus to make it a snack). Cold-water oily fish are also pregnancy powerhouses (thank you, omega-3s), so fork into a tuna salad (light tuna is best to avoid high mercury levels, per the FDA) or some salmon when you're ready for a bigger plate.
If you have trouble listening to your hunger cues or you're so busy you ignore them, you can always set a schedule to make sure you nourish yourself on the reg.
2. Listen to (and learn from) your cravings.
While the science jury's still out on exactly why you might be fiending for fried anything at 7am, it's normal. And according to Ryann Kipping, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder of the Prenatal Nutrition Library, "this is a time more than ever to tune into your body, because our bodies are really smart, and they will tell us what we need".
If you're typically plant-based but all you want is a juicy steak (it happens to the best of us), Jarosh says your body might be telling you to up your iron levels (remember that blood volume thing?). So if you're comfortable working meat into your diet, give yourself permission. If not, try tofu, tempeh, legumes, cashews or dried fruit. Pro tip: Combining those with vitamin C-rich foods, like tomatoes and spinach, can boost iron absorption.
If your sugar cravings seem extra compared to your prepregnancy self, it might be a sign that you're either not eating enough food or not eating enough carbs specifically, both of which can lead to a blood sugar imbalance, says Jarosh. When you aren't getting enough fat, protein and carbs, your energy levels can plummet, and your body will ask you for the quickest hit: sugar. No need to feel guilty or deprive yourself of the sweet stuff. But if you're reaching for sugar all the time, try adding, say, cheese to your sandwiches or chicken to your pasta and see if a better balance of nutrients helps you feel more even-keeled overall.
3. Look at food as medicine.
No one gets pregnant for the nausea, heartburn and constipation, but they tend to come with the territory.
If morning sickness is getting the better of you, protein-rich foods can bring some relief by—you guessed it—stabilising your blood sugar, says Kipping. The catch? Protein is usually the last thing you want when you're queasy (of course). Getting enough of it when you're feeling good (and getting it first thing in the morning) can help stave off nausea, says Kipping. Try eggs, which are packed with not only protein but also choline, folate, B vitamins and healthy fat, all of which are essential to pregnancy.
One heave away from throwing up? Put cheese or peanut butter on a cracker, says Jarosh. Nausea can make carbs sound like the most appealing food, so enhance them with that hit of helpful protein. If you struggle with heartburn, skipping liquids during meals; getting up to move after you eat; and having smaller, more frequent meals can help extinguish the fire. For constipation, beans and lentils are your new best friend (no explanation needed).
4. Think beyond the fridge.
You can't nourish your body without nourishing your relationship with your body. The No. 1 place to start, says Jarosh, is social media. Most of us are consuming more messages than food, so make sure you're smashing the unfollow button on any account that feeds into that toxic diet culture, sends unrealistic or unpleasant messages about pregnant or post-partum bodies or makes you feel judged for your eating choices. Then take a look at who you're surrounding yourself with IRL. If their approach to wellness is (even unintentionally) making you feel crappy, it's OK to take a step back.
Above all else, remember that this is your body and your pregnancy. Trusting yourself can keep you from fearing food and help you start enjoying the journey, one bite at a time.
Words: Sabrina Hunt
Photography: Vivian Kim