First of all, I'd like to say that there's nothing strange or unique or radical about what women should eat during pregnancy. In fact, it's rather boring,* really: Just eat a balanced, healthy diet. Of course, considering that many non-pregnant people miss that mark (including myself at a few points in my life, so I'm not judging), maybe the question of how to eat healthfully and nutritiously during pregnancy isn't so simple.
There are a few specific nutrients that women need more of during pregnancy (I'll talk about those in a future post), a few foods that should be avoided (another future post), and calorie needs increase slightly, but not as much as many people think (ditto). Protein, carbohydrate and fiber needs increase a bit, too, but those amounts are pretty much in line with the overall increase in calories. Because most people in the United States have no trouble meeting their carbohydrate and protein needs, most women won't need to fret about that during pregnancy. I do want to make two points, however:
- Low-carb diets are a bad idea during pregnancy. Glucose (found in carbohydrate-containing foods) is the brain's primary fuel source. The growing fetal brain needs glucose, period.
- Women who don't eat animal products need to be a bit more careful to make sure they get enough protein. It's not hard for vegans to get enough protein, but it just not as easy as it is for women who include animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy) in their diets. When you're pregnant, you're not just growing a baby, you're also growing a placenta, forming amniotic fluid and expanding the blood supply that you and your developing baby share. This takes protein.
The importance of eating healthfully during pregnancy can't be overstated. When you think of the "goal" of a healthy pregnancy, a healthy baby surely springs to mind. But the effects of what goes on while that baby is still in its mother's womb (uterus) can linger for generations.
A fetus who receives enough nutrients and calories (i.e., not significantly deprived or oversupplied) in a mother who gains an appropriate amount of weight has a lower risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and possibly cancer as an adult. What's more, that child's healthy start in life increases the chances that his or her future children will have healthier lives.
So...you are what you eat, but you also are what your mother ate while she was pregnant with you, and what your grandmother ate while she was pregnant with your mother. What we do today matters tomorrow!
I realize that can sound sort of depressing, especially if you know that your mom didn't eat so great while she was pregnant with you. But it's never too late to make healthy choices that can have positive effects going forward. Please don't ever say "Oh, forget it! It's too late...what's the point in trying?" While earlier is always better, later is better than never.
The benefits of eating a healthful, balanced diet during pregnancy go beyond the benefits to the baby. Pregnancy puts huge demands on a woman's body, and the better nourished she is, the better she is likely to feel during pregnancy, as well as after, when she has a crying newborn to take care of. This is especially important for a woman who plan to have more than one child and would like to have their pregnancies fairly close together. If she comes out of the first pregnancy with her body's supply of nutrients badly depleted, then becomes pregnant again before she's had a chance to "restock," the risk of problems with that second pregnancy increases.
Which leads me to next week's topic: The importance of pre-conception nutrition!
* I use the word "boring" tongue-in-cheek, because a healthful, nutritious diet does absolutely not need to be boring!