By Adrienne Côté, Holistic Nutritionist, Doula and Birth Educator
When we think about what we should be doing for a healthy pregnancy, how often are we told what to include in our diets? Other than being given an outdated list of "do not eats", there is not much guidance when it comes to prenatal nutrition. When in fact, what we eat has a tremendous impact on our ability to conceive, have a healthy pregnancy and support optimal fetal development.
The importance of proper nutrition before, during and after pregnancy
So why is what we eat so important for our reproductive health? For one thing, eating a well-balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, protein and healthy fats help support our hormones, fertility and optimize sperm and egg quality. Conversely, there are foods that negatively impact our reproductive system (I’m looking at you fried and packaged foods).
Eating well before pregnancy also ensures you have a sufficient supply of the essential nutrients that are needed to power your body while growing a baby. When you do get pregnant your little one will happily draw from your body’s current stores of vitamins and nutrients, whether you have them readily available or not. Because of your precious little energy sucker, it’s a great idea to make sure you have enough of the necessary baby building blocks on hand and ready to go!
We also know that the intake of certain nutrients can help reduce the risk of birth defects and support proper fetal growth, even before we get pregnant. The most commonly known vitamin being folate. Eating foods high in folate can help prevent neural tube defects. The neural tube, from which the baby's heart and brain will develop, is one of the first parts to form. This occurs during the first 4 weeks, a time when you may not even know you're pregnant! Most of the initial formation of the baby's internal organs are within the first 12 weeks. Just some of the many reasons to start focusing on your nutrition beforehand.
When you do get pregnant, your body exponentially increases its physical demands (you're growing a human after all) and this energy increase requires more fuel. This doesn't necessarily equal out to more food, you only require a few hundred extra calories per day during pregnancy which varies throughout each trimester and from person to person. The key things to focus on rather than quantity is quality. What are you eating and what's inside the food you're eating? How nutritious is it? Will it help support the crazy amount of growth and change that’s happening to your body?
The food you eat while pregnant can also potentially lower your risk of developing certain prenatal conditions like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and preterm labour. Here, I must point out that there are MANY factors that can influence whether or not someone develops these, sometimes it is beyond our control. Despite this, there are studies that show how nutrition plays a key role in lowering risk and how it can help to manage them if they have already developed.
Once your babe is born, you enter the postpartum phase and right away our body goes through some immense changes. Our hormones start to regulate themselves and our bodies need to heal and recuperate from the birth process. Pile all that on top of establishing breastfeeding, most likely not sleeping, forgetting to eat and dealing with the typical new parent anxieties and stresses, and it can really take a toll on our health.
Eating nourishing foods to support this postpartum healing and also to meet the increased caloric needs of breastfeeding is super important. Focus on eating iron-rich foods to replenish blood loss, healthy fats to satiate you and support your hormonal health, protein to help with the physical healing process and of course fresh veggies and fruits for their fibre, vitamin and mineral content. I also love adding in healing spices such as turmeric, ginger and cinnamon to help reduce inflammation.
Let’s chat about healthy fats...
For a long time, fats, especially saturated fats, were demonized. We were warned about their potential dangers and how they contributed to all kinds of health issues and thus from this scare, the low-fat movement was born.
Thankfully, we have come a ways since then with plenty of new research showing that saturated fats are not the monster we have been led to believe and in fact some fats are indeed good for us! Because of the residue of the low-fat craze, convincing ourselves that adding them into our diets intentionally can be a struggle. It can be hard to wrap our heads around the idea that our bodies need fats and cholesterol to optimally function. They impact everything from hormone health to body and brain development.
So, what exactly distinguishes a "healthy" fat from an unhealthy one?
The fats that our bodies require are called Essential Fatty Acids, the most well known among them being Omega 3. Omega 3's only come from food and thus need to be consumed. These Omega 3's break down into components called EPA and DHA which are what make these fats so beneficial to our health. On the other side, we also have Omega 6's. When eaten in a balanced ratio with Omega 3's these 6's don't tend to cause problems. However, eating too many Omega 6's can contribute to inflammation in the body which is linked to a host of health conditions including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, Omega 6's are much more common in our modern diet than Omega 3's. This is because they are found in processed, fried and refined foods and also are high in conventionally raised meat and dairy. If we are eating too much fast and packaged food and meat and dairy from non-organic/grass-fed sources then it is likely our Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio is out of balance.
Fats you should consider avoiding when possible:
- Conventionally raised animal and dairy products
- Deep-fried foods
Now that we have a general understanding of what fats we should be avoiding, here are a few of my favourite healthy fats to include in a well-balanced diet:
- Grass-fed butter
- Olive oil and olives
- Coconut oil
- Fish and fish oils
- Nuts and seeds
- Organic, full fat and grass-fed animal and dairy products
What role do healthy fats play in nourishing the body and baby during pregnancy?
Not only do consuming these fats support the hormonal shifts and rapid development of your body, studies also show that the essential fatty acid intake during pregnancy mirrors the levels found in the baby. Based on this finding, the importance of consuming healthy fats during pregnancy is quite high.
Here are a few more ways that healthy fats nourish and support us during pregnancy:
- Support fetal growth such as eye development, placenta and tissue development and brains which are made up of a whopping 60% fat. DHA from Omega 3 fats, in particular, are crucial for brain development
- Can support balanced blood sugar levels. Eating fats can also help to lower your risk of developing and/or manage gestational diabetes
- Fats are needed to absorb and utilize vitamins A, D, E and K. Your body's need for these vitamins increases during pregnancy and are crucial for structural development of the fetus
- Preterm labour and low birth weight, as well as certain birth defects, can be linked to not getting enough fatty foods (this is just ONE link as there are many factors that can influence these outcomes)
Some key things to consider and remember when adding fats into your diet:
Remember that quality is key! When financially possible, try to ensure that the sources of animal and dairy fat you are getting are from reliable sources. Some keywords to look for on labels are pasture-raised, free-range, grass-fed, organic. Fat from these sources contain higher levels of Omega 3's than their conventionally raised counterparts.
Choose animal and whole foods-based fats over refined cooking oils (just say no to canola, soybean, vegetable etc) as these contain high levels of inflammatory Omega 6 fats.
Finally, like anything in life, eating any food is all about moderation and enjoyment and fats are no exception. I like to encourage my clients to have a healthy fat source with most meals or snacks.
Some of my favourite ways to eat these delicious fats are:
- Cooking my veggies and eggs with ghee or olive oil
- Mixing a tablespoon of ghee into my oatmeal, coffee or tea
- Substituting ghee, coconut oil or grass-fed butter in baking for shortening or other refined oils
- A spoonful of nut butter or handful of nuts and seeds
- Sliced avocado
A tasty bonus is that fats tend to make you feel full longer, a helpful side effect when it can be difficult to eat large meals during pregnancy.
— Adrienne Côté is a Holistic Nutritionist, Doula and Birth Educator located in the City of Toronto offering a variety of holistic services to support health and wellness; 1:1 nutrition counselling sessions, meal planning, in-home meal preparation, postpartum doula services, birth education classes and wellness workshops. Her practice focuses on gently supporting her clients with their reproductive, prenatal and postpartum health. She approaches her work in a non-judgemental way, always meeting her clients wherever they are in their health and parenting journeys.
*This article is for informational purposes only and is in no way intended to provide medical advice, treat or diagnose any conditions.
- How Too Much Omega 6 and Not Enough Omega 3 Is Making Us Sick: Chris Kresser
- Essential Fatty Acids and Human Brain: Chia-Yu Chang, Der-Shin Ke, and Jen-Yin Chen
- Maternal Diet and Nutrient Requirements in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding. An Italian Consensus Document
- Saturated Fat: Does it Really Clog Your Arteries: Lily Nichols
- Real Food for Pregnancy: The science and wisdom of optimal prenatal nutrition: Lily Nichols RDN, CDE 2018
- Nutrient Involvement in Preeclampsia
| by Adrienne Côté