Guest post by Sharon Pendlington, Registered Holistic Nutritionist
When I became pregnant with my first child, 12 years ago, I knew very little about nutrition. I really believed that I was ‘eating for two’ and that I had an excuse to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I understood that what I ate while pregnant affected the health of my child.
Ideal nutrition provides an optimal environment for the fetus to thrive, providing nutrients for hormonal balance, increasing blood flow to the fetus, and nourishing the developing body systems. Optimal nutrition also protects the fetus from toxins, helping to reduce birth defects and developmental disorders. It is clear that nutritional balance during conception and pregnancy will support the constitution of the child. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), congenital essence or ‘jing’ is passed on from the parents to the fetus, lasting throughout its life, and this essence is affected by the food eaten during pregnancy. So to safeguard the optimal health of baby, we need to ensure optimal nutrition of the parents, starting prior to conception. This is particularly important when nutritional deficiencies are present in the parents, as may be caused by digestive issues, oral contraception and fertility drugs.
Embryonic development involves the development of the fetal brain, spinal cord, heart and other organs, and begins only a few weeks after conception. By month two, the neural tube is well formed. And by the end of the third month, the fetus is fully formed, with a digestive tract, bone replacing cartilage, sensory organs, beginnings of teeth, reproductive organs, and circulatory and urinary systems working. With so much happening during this first trimester, what foods should moms be eating during preconception and pregnancy to support all this development?
- Red blood cell production, nervous system development and cell growth requires 50% more Iron and Folate during pregnancy. Folate helps prevent defects of the fetal brain and spine. I should state that folate is Vitamin B9 found in food sources, while Folic Acid is a synthetic form of Vitamin B9 found in many supplements and fortified foods. The synthetic version (folic acid) is not well absorbed and may even be harmful, so it is imperative that food sources or folate supplementation is used to ensure adequate Vitamin B9 levels. Food sources include dark leafy greens, green vegetables, citrus fruits, legumes, calf and chicken liver, and these sources will also provide necessary iron and other B-vitamins. Whole grains, legumes and fermented foods (such as kimchi, natural saurkraut, kefir) are other sources for B-vitamins, and will also provide fiber. In addition to improving digestive function, fermented foods will improve immune function for mom and baby, reducing allergies and eczema, and provide Vitamin K as well.
- Preformed Vitamin A is particularly important during the first trimester for organ, central nervous system and skeletal development. Vitamin A is also necessary for growth of the organ systems throughout pregnancy. Again, I must differentiate between two forms of Vitamin A: Preformed Vitamin A found only in animal food sources, and the Carotenoids, most notably Beta-carotene, found in orange and green leafy veggies. Beta-carotene may be converted into Vitamin A by some of the population, however a large number of people cannot make this conversion, making preformedVitamin A consumption necessary. Preformed Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, can be found in animal food sources (including the fat), such as liver and other organ meats, seafood (particularly wild salmon, trout, sardines, cod, snapper, mahi-mahi as these are least contaminated from mercury and PCBs), butter and whole milk and cheese from grass-fed cows, pastured beef and lamb, eggs and cod liver oil. These foods also contain other healthy fat-soluble vitamins necessary during pregnancy, such as Vitamins D and E, found in substantial amounts in egg yolks.
- These fatty foods also contain essential fatty acids (EFAs) necessary to support brain mass and development. Up to 3% of brain mass can be lost to baby during pregnancy, and these fatty acids help to prevent post-partum depression and memory loss (1) They also reduce the risk of preterm delivery, facilitate an easier birth, and encourage tissue healing post-partum. Vegetable sources of EFAs include nuts and seeds, coconut oil and coconut milk, and olive oil.
- Calcium (and other minerals) is necessary for fetal skeletal, nerve, muscle and cardiovascular function. Calcium is also used to prevent and treat pre-eclampsia and eclampsia during pregnancy (2). Good sources of calcium include sesame and sunflower seeds, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fish with bones, bone broth, and fermented dairy products.
- Vitamin C foods such as green fruits and vegetables, bell peppers, leafy greens, citrus and tomatoesprotect the fetus from toxins and metals, helping to reducing birth defects, developmental disorders and autism.
- An additional 350-450 calories per day and 50% more Protein is required during pregnancy for tissue growth, hormones, increased blood volume and milk production during lactation. These extra calories and protein can be obtained with the addition of the above nutrient-rich, whole foods.
Are there any foods that mom should avoid to support her nutritional status, and that of baby?
Stimulants such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol, as well as nutrient-depleted foods such as white flour, trans-fatty acids (such as vegetable oils and deep fried foods) and processed foods (including soft drinks, unfermented soy products and deli meats) should be avoided. TCM also recommends avoiding spicy foods, black and chili pepper during pregnancy.
I also suggest avoiding hormones, antibiotics, additives/preservatives/colours and pesticides in your food whenever possible. Around the home and at work, hormone-disrupting chemicals (found in plastics, hydrocarbons, household cleaning products, and personal hygiene products) should also be avoided.
Cell division and the formation of tissues and organ systems is a lot of work! Besides supporting yourself nutritionally, you will want to support your energy. This means avoiding excess activity, undertaking moderate exercise, getting enough rest, and keeping the body warm. Parents can also reduce stress by avoiding stimulants, through accupuncture and massage treatments, and by engaging in meditative practices like yoga, deep breathing, tai-chi and Qigong.
Sharon Pendlington is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Yoga Instructor and Birth Doula who specializes in Women’s Health and the health of their families. Her passion is working one-on-one with clients to address their health issues through food and lifestyle planning.