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How to Nourish Your Body and Protect Your Unborn Baby

For some women, getting pregnant is easy; it’s the nine months after it that come as a challenge. Whether conceiving was easy or a struggle to you, maintaining a healthy pregnancy is not as simple as it sounds. As if carrying an entire human being inside your body wasn’t overwhelming enough, it also comes with a ton of responsibility to ensure the baby grows well. CDC recommends that women who have a healthy BMI prior to getting pregnant should be gaining around 25-35 pounds of mass for a single pregnancy. Women who are overweight or obese should gain less than this. In the following sections, we’ll explore all the ins and outs of gaining the right amount of weight, nourishing your unborn baby, and maintaining a healthy pregnancy throughout the nine-month period. And no – that does not mean you need to start eating for two! The key to getting all the required nutrients for you and your baby is an all-rounder, balanced diet. Pregnancy does not mean you need to follow a strict diet plan; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. What’s important is that you make sure you include all the important food groups to your plate every day in their recommended amounts.

Seafood

One of the greatest controversies around seafood is that it can be harmful for pregnant women. While not entirely false, the notion that all kind of seafood should be avoided when you’re expecting a baby is an exaggeration. In fact, women who are pregnant are advised to include a healthy amount of oily fish to their diet to get their supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid is an essential fat that our bodies cannot produce on its own and therefore needs it from the diet. This is an antioxidant that has proven clinical benefits for decreasing pregnancy-related inflammation, cardiovascular problems and improve gut health. Studies have also shown that this nutrient can participate in brain development of the fetus as well.

However, not all kind of seafood is rich in this essential fatty acid. Salmon, shrimp, herring, sardines are some of the richer sources of omega-3 fatty acid. FDA recommends that women who are pregnant should consume no more than 12 ounces of seafood per day. So, what’s the controversy? Mercury.

Mercury is a heavy metal that can contaminate seafood thanks to the huge industrial wastage around us. Mercury can contaminate just about any kind of fish, but the greater risk lies in larger types of fish such as the king mackerel, swordfish, and shark. Raw seafood like sushi is also discouraged in pregnancy because any type of raw meat has the potential to cause an infection in the body. With the immune system already compromised in a pregnant woman, it’s best to avoid all bacteria-containing meats like raw sushi.

Meat

Getting the right amount of protein for your baby and for yourself is something no one should need to tell you. However, choosing your protein can make or break your pregnancy diet. It is generally recommended to increase the intake of lean meat since they are high in protein content and low in fat. Protein is also what contributes to healthy the growth of the baby in one too many ways. It is an important component of enzymes, muscles, and hormones. Plus, they also form an integral part of the body’s immune system in the form of antibodies that can keep your baby protected from future infections. However, maintaining a balance in your protein intake is essential. FDA recommended women should be consuming around 70-100 grams of protein per day; this increases with each trimester. Organic meat is the best form of protein you can consume for a healthy pregnancy. All kinds of organic produce are free from artificial hormones and encourage natural fetal development much more than inorganic products do.

Although red meat is rich in protein, it can slow down bowel movement and affect your gut health. Since pregnancy can naturally make women constipated, it is best to avoid red meat. Instead, chicken, mutton or turkey should be considered. You can also take your share of proteins from non-meat diets, particularly if you’re a vegetarian (more on that below!). These protein sources include eggs, pulses, nuts, cheese, and beans. To put it simply, choosing your protein and consuming it in the appropriate amount is the key to maintaining a healthy and viable pregnancy.

Gluten-Free

Around 60-70% of patients with celiac disease are women as is the demographic for most autoimmune diseases. Many women develop gluten sensitivity after they get pregnant, while some are already sensitive before. Either way, a gluten-free pregnancy diet should be inclusive of all the right nutrients for a healthy delivery,

Celiac disease restricts you from consuming most of the commercially available carbohydrates. The good news is most stores now have gluten-free produce that you can easily get. Carbohydrates have an important role in the healthy growth and weight of the baby; cutting them out of your diet because of celiac disease can negatively impact your pregnancy. That’s why it’s important to increase your intake of carbohydrates that are present in gluten-free products. Some examples of gluten-free produce that can provide you with an ample amount of carbs include rice, corn, tomatoes, kale, pineapples, papaya, apple, asparagus, herbs, and pears etc. You can also get gluten-free wheat and bread – remember to always the read the label before you choose your food! Since the general recommendation for the daily intake of carbohydrates is around 4-5 portions each day, its’ important to get 4-5 portions of gluten-free carbohydrates each day. You should also consume a greater portion of gluten-free fiber. Although most fiber options contain gluten, the naturally gluten-free psyllium is a great option to consider that can help ease your bowels and promote better gut health. Because some gluten-free options such as rice can contribute to rapid weight gain, make sure you watch the scale and gain only the CDC recommended amount according to your pre-conception BMI.

Vegan

Getting the right amount of nutrients for your baby on a strict vegan diet can sound challenging but it really isn’t. With veganism getting more and more popular now, there are plentiful options available for pregnant women to meet their nutrient requirements with a green and cruelty-free diet. It’s important to consider the amount and the type of foods that you consume during your pregnancy if you’re a strict vegetarian. Although fruits and vegetables can provide us with an ample amount of vitamins and minerals, some like vitamin B12 or iron are just not in a high enough quantity in non-meat products. It’s important to consume all of the nutrients that your vegan diet lacks through fortified forms so that your baby gets the nourishment it needs. This means pregnant women who are vegan should focus on including a greater portion of iron, vitamin A, vitamin C and folic acid in their diets. Vitamin B12 is another essential nutrient that no plant product has and therefore it must be consumed through fortified foods. However, vitamin B12 deficiency can take years to manifest because our bodies has a naturally abundant store for this vitamin. Pregnant women who have a strict vegan diet are also advised to consume at least four portions of calcium in a day to meet the FDA requirement. At the same time, it’s also important to keep tabs on the calories you consume. Because most vegan diets are low in calories, you should pay attention to the amount of calories you consume and that you meet the recommended amount. Low calorie intake can result in malnourishment of the developing baby and cause low birth weight in the newborn. It can also increase the risk of a premature delivery.

Gut Health

Pregnancy brings with it a number of physiological changes in the body and this includes a plummet in gut health and immunity. The immune system of a pregnant woman tones down a notch so that the body’s own immune cells does not reject the growing fetal tissues. On the contrary, some women also experience a hyperactive, abnormal immune response when they get pregnant. That is why many autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus present during or after pregnancy. Because of the altered immune response in a pregnant woman, the body becomes more susceptible to harm from foreign noxious agents and pathogens. The pregnant body is more vulnerable to infections and inflammation which is why good immune health is essential to maintain a healthy and uncomplicated pregnancy.

Some immune-boosting activities include:

Another bodily function that can get affected by pregnancy is the digestive system. Gut health is influenced in a number of ways by pregnancy. The increase in inflammation and the increase in abdominal girth can all put pressure on the bowels and result in slow bowel motility, constipation, bloating and nausea.

Ensuring good gut health in pregnancy can benefit not just your bowels but also other parts of your body such as a stronger immune system, decreased risk for autism, decreased risk of allergies, improved mental health, a healthy increase in body weight and more.  Gut health is largely determined by what you consume and the quality of your gut microbiome. In the intestines, reside a large number of bacteria that help digest and break down food that enters the intestines. These bacteria are usually beneficial for our health but sometimes their population can be depleted or altered to a more dangerous type. Studies have shown that poor gut health may be associated with a higher risk of preterm delivery, gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and an unhealthy gain in weight.  Consuming probiotics is one of the ways to improve the quality of your gut health and reap the benefits of a healthy digestive system. That’s why you should include more portion of yogurt, kefir, fermented sourdough bread and other types of probiotic foods.

Diseases

There is a long list of pregnancy-associated diseases that are sometimes impossible to avoid. These diseases may come about because of a compromised immune response in pregnancy or the overwhelming changes in the physiological parameters that come when you become pregnant. No matter what the cause, unfortunately many are unavoidable and can run in generations.

You can, however, reduce the risk of developing certain pregnancy-related diseases by nourishing your body appropriately and taking the right steps to prevent these diseases. They include:

It’s important to have your blood sugar levels and blood pressure checked frequently to monitor the trend in these parameters. Gestational diabetes and pregnancy-associated hypertension or pre-eclampsia typically occurs in the third trimester. Making certain lifestyle changes during pregnancy may help to reduce your risk of getting these common pregnancy diseases. This includes engaging in a moderate amount of physical exercise and consuming a balanced diet that is free from processed foods and sugar. An infection in pregnancy is perhaps the most preventable type of disease but it can also be the most dangerous one. Pregnant women are most susceptible to getting an infection from certain microorganisms and parasites. Therefore, it’s important to follow hygiene control, engage in frequent handwashing and take care of your oral health. You should also avoid handling pet litter, particularly cat litter as it can house toxoplasma, a parasite that can cause severe disease in pregnancy. Similarly, pregnant women are advised to avoid gardening or coming in direct contact with dirt or soil as these places can also be a hub for many bacteria, viruses, parasites. Raw food such as sushi or unpasteurized milk are also danger zones where bacteria can thrive; therefore, pregnant women should ensure they don’t consume any form of raw meat or unpasteurized dairy produce. Since bowel health is below the standard prenatal level in a pregnant woman, it’s a good idea to include more fiber and bulky grains to your diet. This can help increase food transit and prevent constipation. You should also stay well hydrated to keep bowel health optimum and decrease your risk of developing constipation. Regular checkups with your obstetrician is a must to keep tabs on your overall health in pregnancy, catch a problem early, and treat it in a timely manner.

Hormones

The two major female hormones – estrogen and progesterone – ebb and flow during a woman’s menstrual cycle. When a woman becomes pregnant, the level of these hormones only rise, and keep doing so for the next nine months. Estrogen and progesterone help maintain the pregnancy and participate in a number of different functions that benefit both the mother and the baby. Estrogen has the primary role in the proliferation of blood vessels of the uterus and placenta. This increase in vascular blood supply enables adequate nutrient and waste exchange between the mother and the baby. Estrogen also prepare the lactating glands and enables the breast to grow in size; however, it keeps milk production inhibited. Soon after delivery, the level of estrogen drops so that milk production becomes uninhibited and the mother is able to lactate. Progesterone, on the other hand, also helps to maintain the pregnancy in ways different than estrogen. It helps the uterus increase in size so that it can attain its pregnancy pear-like shape. This increase in size is necessary to allow for adequate space for the baby to grow and support.

Progesterone also acts on the different ligaments and joints of the body in pregnancy by increasing their laxity. This allow the uterus to grow without restriction.  The increase in the level of hormones can also have an effect in other parts of the body as well. For example, these hormones contribute to the ‘pregnancy glow’ of a woman. They also permit healthy weight gain as well as a certain degree of edema. The levels of these hormones and the level of another key pregnancy hormone, beta-HCG, rise to a certain level. Anything above or below the normal level can result in complications in the pregnancy. For example, an exceptionally high level of beta-HCG could indicate a molar pregnancy, whereas a low level of this hormone could indicate an ectopic pregnancy.  If you have concerns about the level of your pregnancy hormones, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor.

Medicines

There exists a long list of medications that can have adverse effects in pregnancy and should be discontinued immediately you find out that you’re pregnant. Most of these medicines have a teratogenic effect on the fetus in one way or another, and a good majority will result in birth defects if taken in the first trimester because that is when most of the organs in a fetus are developing. If you’re currently taking any medications, it’s important to talk to your doctor about them. Medications that are harmful for the baby may need to be replaced with another safer form or discontinued altogether. Some common medications that should not be taken in pregnancy include NSAIDs, warfarin, ACE inhibitors, metformin, decongestants, certain antibiotics, and most antipsychotic medications. It is typically safe to take penicillin, SSRIs, anti-allergic medication, acetaminophen, and heart-burn medications. Women who have hypertension or develop hypertension during pregnancy are prescribed pregnancy-safe antihypertensives. Diabetic women are advised to use insulin or other glucose-lowering agents instead of metformin.

Because many women do not find out that they are pregnant until a month after, it’s important to substitute or replace harmful medication when you start planning your pregnancy.

Supplements

Nutrient requirement in pregnancy increases and while some people may be able to meet these new recommended amounts through their natural diet alone, supplements can help others. Micronutrients, in particular, are difficult to consume in large quantities from natural diet alone. Macronutrients, on the other hand, should be taken in larger quantities from natural diet.

Certain vitamins are recommended to start at least two months prior to conception. These prenatal vitamins prepare your body for pregnancy and encourage healthy fetal development that occurs optimally in the first few weeks.

However, most of these supplements need to be continued once you become pregnant as well. These include:

Folic acid is an important B vitamin that allows for normal brain and spinal cord development. Mothers who are deficient in this essential pregnancy nutrient have a high risk of having a baby with some form of neural tube defects. Experts recommend consuming at least 600 mg of folate per day to prevent neural tube defects. Another extremely important supplement that needs to be taken in pregnancy is iron. Iron is the mineral our red blood cell needs to supply adequate oxygen throughout our body. When a woman becomes pregnant, the demand of iron increases because it has to be used in supplying oxygen to the fetus as well. The recommended amount of iron in pregnancy is around 27 mg per day but this value may increase as the pregnancy period elapses. Low levels of iron are implicated in anemia of pregnancy and anemia in a newborn. Iron is also important for a healthy brain and immune system development of the baby. However, it’s important to ensure that you’re not exceeding the amount of iron you need. Too much iron can cause adverse effects such as constipation which is already a problem in pregnancy for some women. Another important supplement that needs to be consumed in pregnancy is vitamin D. This is a bone vitamin that primarily functions in regulating calcium and phosphate homeostasis and strengthening bone. In addition to this, vitamin D also plays a key role in boosting the immune system of a pregnant woman. Because vitamin D can be obtained directly from sunlight, many women may not require supplements for it. However, if you do not get adequate sunlight in the day, it’s important to monitor your vitamin D levels and take supplements accordingly. FDA recommends getting at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day.

Magnesium is another important natal supplement that women require for proper nourishment of their baby. Magnesium is also thought to reduce the risk of getting pregnancy-associated hypertension and the development of chronic hypertension in the long run. An adequate amount of magnesium in the body ensures healthy nerve, muscles, and immune development of the fetus as well. Another less talked about nutrient that some pregnant women may require is choline. Although this nutrient isn’t usually included in your typical prenatal supplements, it may be prescribed separately. Choline plays a critical role in the development of the spine and brain. An intake of around 930 mg per day is recommended in pregnant women to meet their body requirements.

Apart from the supplements that you should take in pregnancy, there are some that you should avoid or at least minimize to a certain extent. Although some evidence exists in the favor of herbal supplements in pregnancy, it’s best to avoid them since they are backed by little science. Other supplements or nutrients that you should take in smaller pregnancy include vitamin A and vitamin E. Vitamin A is a primary component of some acne medications which should be strictly avoided should you plan a pregnancy. Vitamin A and its derivatives have ben clinically proven to result in severe facial birth defects. On the other hand, vitamin E, an important antioxidant, may result in abdominal colic and premature membrane rupture if taken in excess amounts.

Toxins

Noxious substances exist all around us and can have poor consequences for pregnancy. Toxins that are harmful for a pregnant woman and should be strictly avoided include not just tobacco and alcohol, but a number of environmental and household toxins as well. They include:

Maternal cigarette smoking may be associated with premature delivery, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome and Hirschsprung disease. It’s also important to ensure that you don’t get exposed to passive smoking either because it can have the same consequences. Alcohol is also implicated in a number of birth problems. In particular, excess amounts of drinking can lead to a condition known as the fetal alcohol syndrome that is characterized by distinct facial features and poor mental capacity. Apart from these two popular toxins, pregnant women are also advised to limit their exposure to certain household and environmental substances. For example, exposure to an excessively polluted environment can result in allergies or asthma in the newborn. Household chemicals like detergents also pose a risk to the health of both the mother and the baby. Women who are pregnant should also avoid heavy metal exposure. Heavy metals like lead and mercury can cause a number of adverse effects on the health of the baby. Lead is typically found in old homes, chipped paint or batteries. It can also contaminate soil and dirt which is why women who are pregnant should avoid gardening. Mercury is another heavy metal that can be abundant in industrial waste products that are dumped in water bodies. This metal can then accumulate in large fish which, if consumed, can cause complicated in the mother and the baby.

Another less talked about environmental toxin is radon which can accumulate in basements. Therefore, pregnant women are advised not to spend too much time in basements. Other common environmental toxins that exist in our homes include toluene, asbestos and formaldehyde. Toluene is a key component in glue and paint. Freshly painted homes can have high levels of toluene in the air which can harm the mother and the baby. That’s why it’s important to put all house renovation projects on hold until after you deliver the baby. Asbestos can be found in old and wearing insulation of roofs. This is a mineral that has carcinogenic properties and is implicated in certain forms of respiratory cancers. Asbestos exposure is not just harmful for a pregnant woman and the fetus, it is also problematic for just about anyone. Old roofing and insulation should be replaced as soon as possible to limit exposure to asbestos. Because this mineral can get into water supply, it’s a good idea to get your drinking water checked for asbestos levels. The same applies for lead because lead can also get into water supply. If the level of these toxins is found increased in your drinking water source, it’s best to change your water supply or boil water before drinking it. Last but definitely not the least is formaldehyde that is used as a preservative in many household chemicals including furniture. Increased exposure to this preservative has been shown to have a negative impact on the health of the baby’s lungs. You can limit your exposure to formaldehyde by choosing formaldehyde-free preservative products, avoiding nail salons, and purchasing only pure wood furniture. Toxins can be challenging to avoid particularly the ones that are in the air. That’s why it’s important to ensure regular pregnancy checkups and ultrasounds. Like most other teratogenic substances, toxins also exert their effects most powerfully in the first trimester when organogenesis is at its prime.

Takeaway

Pregnancy is an overwhelming journey, one that no woman can forget. It’s critical to keep tabs on your health at all times while you’re on this roller coaster ride. Ensuring proper nourishment for your growing body and baby starts with making the right changes in your lifestyle. Understand the type of foods you can and should eat when pregnant, the physiological changes in pregnancy and what you can do to minimize harm for you and your baby.

If you have any concerns or worries, it’s important to reach out to your doctor or midwife right away so that they can be addressed in a timely manner.

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