For some, pregnancy might be an awakening to be more conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies. Others might take it as a time to “eat for two,” or indulge in some cravings otherwise avoided. Whatever the case may be, it's important to keep in mind that maternal nutrition can determine the long-term health of your baby.
The quality of a mother’s diet during her nine months of pregnancy will have a direct impact on all parts of the baby’s biological organs and systems, including brain development, kidneys and cardiovascular system. A high quality diet pre-conception and during pregnancy can also determine a baby’s susceptibility to diabetes, heart disease, kidney health and other degenerative diseases later on in life.
The study of how nutrition and environment during pregnancy impacts adult susceptibility to disease is often explained in terms of “developmental origins theory” or “developmental origins of health and disease.” There is still plenty of room to grow in this area of scientific research, as how epigenetics (the study of external or environmental factors on gene expression) impacts fetal development is extremely complex.
What’s fascinating to me is that maternal nutrition will not only impact how the baby enters the world for the first time, but also how he or she grows and thrives later on in life. If we think about it in the most basic of terms, it makes sense: if you were building anything - a house, a bike, a shelf - wouldn’t you use high quality materials for strength and longevity? Before and during pregnancy, nutrient-dense foods will allow for optimal physiological health and development.
Ancient cultures intuitively knew the importance of a mother’s health and diet before and during pregnancy, and some traditions even included specific foods for fathers-to-be as well. Primitive peoples focused on foods rich in fat-soluble vitamins, macronutrients and trace minerals. Depending on their geographic location they often included organ meats, fish heads, fish eggs, shellfish, insects and animal fats.
The Massai people of East Africa utilize high quality milk during pre-conception, which is much higher in fat and cholesterol, and lower in sugar in comparison to commercial American milk. Furthermore, couples were only fed milk from cows that ate grass during the wet season, as more lush grass would provide for more nutrient-dense milk. Primitive cultures close to the sea utilized fish eggs, as these provide significant levels of cholesterol, vitamin B12, choline, selenium, calcium, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids.
Many of these traditional foods are a rarity on the modern family’s dinner table, but the nutritional value of these foods is undeniable, and the bio-availability of their nutrients will far surpass supplements. Couples who are planning to have children should eat liberally of traditional foods for at least six months before conception. Any pregnant women dealing with morning sickness probably won’t want to reach for a liver paté, so exploring and experimenting with these foods before getting pregnant will be ideal (and maybe even help with common pregnancy issues). Eat foods including organic liver (when pregnant, liver just once a week) and other organ meats, fish eggs and other seafood, eggs, and the highest quality butter, cream, or fermented milk products available. Also consider cod liver oil daily, which can be taken in supplement form.
Optimal Diet Basics
In addition to the aforementioned traditional foods, round out the diet with whole foods, ideally six months before pregnancy, free of refined sugars and processed foods. This means whole, organic foods, with an emphasis on plants. In a perfect world, foods will be diversified, seasonal, local, and organic when possible. Here are guidelines around the basic macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and in which foods they can be found:
Carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy. They are the body’s most efficient energy sources as they are quickly broken down into glucose (sugar/energy), and released into the bloodstream. An adequate amount of carbohydrate intake is essential during pregnancy because glucose is the primary energy substrate for the placenta and fetus.
Carbohydrate intake ranges can vary, but most recommendations hover around 30% of daily calories. Don’t worry about this number; eat whole food carbohydrates that you can easily digest. Be aware of portions and write down energy levels. Adjust until you find your sweet spot.
Proteins are the building blocks of hair, skin, muscles, tendons, organs, hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters. Animal proteins and certain combinations of plant proteins are complete - they contain all the essential amino acids that our body is not able to make on its own. Pasture-raised, organic meats contain good fats along with other vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, D, and K. Eggs are a great source of protein and its amino acids (protein building blocks), are easily absorbed, retained and used in the body. Vegetable proteins are also great, but need to be properly combined in order to be complete and usable by the body. Combine pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas) with grains, or pulses with nuts and seeds.
Healthy fat sources include almonds, walnuts, avocados, salmon, ghee and coconut. Fats are concentrated sources of energy and are used for building cell membranes and nerve insulation/transmission. Fats also make up ~60% of our brains. Including some fat at each meal is very helpful at inducing satiety without leading to blood sugar spikes.
Foods to incorporate:
Nuts and Seeds: Flax, sesame, and pumpkin. Cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts.
Whole food fat sources: Olives, avocados, coconut butter/oil/chips, extra-virgin olive oil, grass-fed ghee.
Meats/Seafood: Wild-caught seafood, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, pork, turkey, etc.
Dairy: If tolerable, whole and full fat, best if fermented such as plain yogurt and kefir.
Pulses and legumes: Black beans, adzuki beans, mung beans, garbanzo beans/chickpeas, lentils, etc.
Other Carbohydrates: Leafy and crunchy vegetables, non-gluten grains (quinoa, buckwheat, millet), seasonal/ wild fruit.
Booster foods: Seaweeds, sea vegetables, algae, cultured foods, spices and herbs.
Beverages: Pure water, herbal teas, homemade bone broths from organic, pasture-raised animals.
Foods to stay away from:
Refined carbohydrates: This includes almost all foods that come from a box or package. Foods like macaroni and cheese, cereals, baked, goods, cake mixes, crackers, chips, frozen meals, etc.
Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners: This can be tricky, as many companies try to hide the word “sugar” with terms like evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, agave, dextrose, etc. An easy way to ensure you’re not having any refined sugar is simply to buy foods in their whole form or, if you’re craving a treat, to make it yourself.
Damaged fats and industrial seed oils: This includes oils like canola oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and sunflower oil, to name a few. These oils have gone through so much processing that their fats have been oxidized and are no longer health-promoting. A simple tip to remember is avoid any oil that comes in a clear bottle, as these oils have already become oxidized through exposure to light.
Commercial meat and dairy: Animals raised on commercial farms have exposure to synthetic hormones and antibiotics. They also contain a lower nutrient profile than organic/grass-fed animals. Conventional farming methods are unsustainable, with severe negative environmental impacts.
Pesticides: Pesticides occur on non-organic fruits and vegetables, as well as on the feed of non-organically raised animals.
Caffeine: Studies have shown that more than 200-300 mg/day can reduce fertility by up to 27%.
Processed foods: These foods will contain artificial colors, preservative and in some cases, artificial hormones. These ingredients can disrupt the body’s natural hormonal systems, which are super important for reproductive health.
Soy products: Men should especially avoid soy products as soy has been shown to slow down or destroy sperm. For women, while soy can be a good source of protein and mimic the hormone estrogen, its impact on fertility is still questionable. It’s best to stay away from this product, at least while trying to conceive.
Refined sugars and refined/simple carbohydrates: This includes white flours, white sugars, refined grains and especially sweets. These foods eventually end up as a net loss for your body’s vitamins and minerals, as your body has to use up vital nutrients in order to metabolize them. Additionally, these foods are not supportive of healthy weight and blood sugar regulation.