I recently had a really crucial interaction with one of my pregnant moms. She felt terrible, emotionally and physically, and she was very discouraged and confused. She is a smart lady, a registered nurse, a very active individual, and, prior to pregnancy, she ate a very healthy Paleo-leaning diet, exercised regularly, and felt great. Once pregnant, however, she was chastised for her “extreme” eating patterns by both her peers and her GP. She was told very conflicting statements: (1) that it didn’t matter what she ate because her body would make everything that baby needed; and (2) that not eating wheat and dairy meant that she was not able to provide for her growing child. Wanting to respect her healthcare provider and heed information that may influence her babe, she switched from a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet emphasizing protein and healthy fats to reintroducing ample amounts of wheat and dairy at every meal. Everything went downhill from there. Most notable from the outside was that she was having terrible skin breakouts. (Coincidentally, she had been told a few years ago by her dermatologist to avoid dairy because of her skin condition, which resolved the issue until the recent reintroduction.) Now her GP is concerned that she has gained too much weight too fast and is at risk of gestational diabetes. Well of course she did!
So what’s a girl to do? Well, a girl is to start by arming herself with information. Learn. With all these conflicting pressures and experiences, we need to rely on what is true so that we can make decisions that are congruent with both our intellectual understanding and our personal emotional “feelies”.
The biggest pregnancy nutrition myth is that it doesn’t matter what you eat. Your body will prioritize and build everything it needs and you have no direct influence on that makeup. This just simply isn’t true.
What does your body need to build a baby?
To build a baby, we are going to need a lot of protein (amino acids) and fats. Those are our main building blocks for baby and for our own tissues. In order to run all the chemical reactions that need to take place to put these building blocks together to form a miniature human being from scratch, we also need a lot “cofactors”, which are primarily our micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.).
Our body is capable of building many of the protein and fat structures that we need (provided that we have all the right building blocks and cofactors for those reactions…). However, there are also several pieces that we are not able to build on our own. These components are referred to as “Essential Nutrients”.
Essential Nutrients mean that your body cannot build them. If you don’t consume them, then you don’t have them to use a building blocks. There are two very important categories of essential macronutrients.
1 – Essential Amino Acids
Human proteins are made up of 22 different amino acid building blocks. Nine (9) of these 22 amino acids are considered essential amino acids, meaning our body cannot make them on its own. These 9 amino acids must be consumed in the diet or they will not be available for us to use. Other than making babies, these guys are also very important for our own protein synthesis, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, so they’re kind of a big deal.
The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
On top of that, we have six (6) amino acids which are considered Conditionally Essential Amino Acids, meaning that in normally healthy conditions our body can keep up with demand, but during times of illness or heightened stress, our capacity is limited. Pregnancy is a time of heightened stress and protein requirements.
The six conditionally essential amino acids are arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine.
By the end of pregnancy, your total protein requirements increase dramatically, from roughly 40-50 grams a day to 70-90 grams a day. If you want to be more specific, the RDI for pregnant women goes from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to 1.1 grams per kilogram. (Don’t forget that your body weight is increasing as you go!)
2 – Essential Fatty Acids
There are two primary essential fatty acid groups: omega-3 (linolenic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid). These guys are involved in everything. They are crucial for the development of the brain and eyes and play a key in in hormone regulation. They are also involved in immune function and inflammatory responses. So again, they are kind of a big deal.
Omega-6 fatty acids are actually pretty plentiful in most diets. It is the omega-3s that are often deficient. Omega-3 deficiency has been linked to lower IQ scores in infants, lower visual acuity scores, increased risk of depression, and increase susceptibility to chronic diseases. The RDA for omega-3s is 1.4 grams per day, which is considered by many to be too low still. Ideally, you would focus on omega-3s in the form of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – which is an important anti-inflammatory mediator – and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – which is an important building block for nervous system and eye development.
The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is from fish and marine oils.
You body’s need for micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) sharply increases during pregnancy. For example, your daily vitamin D and vitamin C requirements more than double and most B vitamins increase by about 50%. Micronutrient deficiencies during pregnancy have a detrimental impact on both maternal and fetal health, from anemia and hypertension to premature birth and birth defects to increase disease risk later in life. This is why, all over the world, a high-quality prenatal multi-vitamin/mineral supplement is recommended for all pregnant women. (And yes, quality in your prenatal multi absolutely does matter.)
So what do you notice about all these very important nutrients that you absolutely need to support optimal development and health during pregnancy? I have listed some key essential macronutrients and some vital micronutrients. I have not listed any specific food groups or foods. That is because there are no “essential” foods. You need the nutrients and there are many options of healthy, whole, nutrient-dense foods available to you. There are no essential nutrients unique to wheat or dairy. (And no, you don’t need to drink milk to produce milk… that’s just silly.)
I work with moms with all sorts of eating patterns, from vegan and vegetarian to gluten-free to Paleo to junk food diets. My job is not to tell you which food pattern to subscribe to (unless you currently subscribe to the junk food diet… stop that!). My job is to support you in your decision and guide you along optimizing your health and that of your future little one. The more you restrict your choices, the more conscientious you need to be, especially if you eliminate animal products completely. But that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong or a bad human being. It just means you have to be extra smart and probably put a little more effort into your food choices.
A Note on Energy Requirements
You’re not really “eating for two”, at least not two full grown adults. Energy requirements only increase about 300-400 kcal per day. That’s not very much. It’s the nutrient requirements that are so dramatic. Quality over quantity! The best way to achieve this balance of increased nutrients without increased calories (and excess weight-gain) is to focus on a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet and avoid process/refined foods.
Traditional cultures put a major emphasis on nutrients during conception, pregnancy, and lactation. They often have special foods and customs specific to pregnancy. We don’t need to stay in the nutrition dark ages. We can take the best of traditional wisdom, common sense, and solid science to build the best babies ever. 🙂
Would this myth make sense to you at any other time? Does it resonate with you the thought that the foods you eat have no influence on your health and physical makeup? Why would this magically come true when your nutrient needs are at their peak and you are building a person inside of you? Perhaps we like to believe in fairy tales because they remove us from responsibility.
The purpose of this blog is not to make you feel guilty or scare you. It is to challenge and empower you to have an incredible impact on your growing baby and give them the absolute best start to life that you can. That is our role as mothers is it not? To prepare, support, and nourish our little ones?
PS – You don’t have to (and should not!) wait until you are pregnant to start thinking about these things! A thoughtful pre-conception period can have a huge impact on your nutrient stores, especially for those critical early weeks when you probably won’t even know that you are expecting! This deliberate preparation will also give you a much needed buffer of nutrients to help you get through the nausea and food aversions that often come with early baby-building.
(You didn’t think I was pulling this all out of thin air did you?)
Kniss et al. Insulin-like growth factors. Their regulation of glucose and amino acid transport in placental trophoblasts isolated from first-trimester chorionic villi. J Reproductive Medicine. 1994. 39(4):249-256.