“When you’re pregnant you’re eating for two” is an old saying that deserves a closer look. Obviously, it doesn’t mean you should be eating twice as much as before. But let’s delve a bit into what’s different now and how to approach this important dimension of your journey to growing your family.

These days, many women and their partners are paying more attention to their health before, during and after pregnancy. During the three to six months leading up to conception, healthy nutrition and lifestyle choices can have a positive impact on egg and sperm quality as well as the state of your uterus during implantation of your embryo. During pregnancy, your focus is on growing the placenta and nourishing the baby within. After you’ve given birth, proper food and lifestyle choices support you during breastfeeding and your own recovery.

Traditional ways

Our ancestors definitely knew a thing or two about nourishing women around childbearing because optimizing and prioritizing their needs contributed to the health and survival of the clan. Often, older people ate more simply to ensure that the most nutritious foods would be saved for pregnant women during times of scarcity. This was true especially of animal-sourced foods that were not available in unlimited quantities.

Modern approaches

Now, there’s more and more useful research looking into the nutritional needs of women during pregnancy to promote the development of a healthy baby. We’re learning which nutrients and from what sources are needed during certain phases of pregnancy for the proper development of the internal organs and nervous system tissues, including the brain, of a fetus. If these nutrients are not available in your diet in sufficient amounts, or you eat them in a form your body can’t process, your baby may not get enough of them when needed, and this can affect how well they thrive even after birth.

Here are two fundamental shifts in your nutrition that you want to consider for pregnancy: eat real, not processed foods and include foods from high-quality animal sources in your meals. It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor to learn more about the individual macro- and micronutrients in your diet and when your needs for them during pregnancy change, but it can also be somewhat overwhelming unless you have a degree in biochemistry or human nutrition. It’s much easier to go by the fundamentals. We know that the more processed our food is the less nutritional value it has. Many vitamins and other nutrients disappear, while food additives make the product more palatable and give it a longer shelf-life. All the added food colorings, preservatives, sugars or artificial sweeteners, etc. are not part of our traditional diet and can harm your health. On the other hand, any foods in their natural state and prepared in an appropriate manner bring so much flavor and powerful nutrients to the table that your body has more to choose from to feed your cells—and those of your baby. Eating a wide variety of vegetables and some fruit fresh out of the garden or from your farmer’s market is often the best way to tap into Mother Nature’s storehouse of nutrition. Culinary herbs, spices, natural salt and sweeteners (in moderation) will add flavor and make your food more digestible. Try to eat the rainbow and mix plants that grow above and below ground.

To veg or not to veg

I hate to break this to you, but a strict vegan (or even vegetarian) diet is usually not optimal for growing a baby, even if you didn’t have trouble conceiving. Animal-sourced foods, esp. those with a naturally high fat content, provide nutrient density that plant-derived foods, healthy as they are, cannot achieve. They are also easier to assimilate. They are particularly important for the development of nervous tissue in your baby. They can help regulate your body’s insulin levels, too. Fortified foods or nutritional supplements are not a substitute (they’re supplements, as the name implies). Many people have developed an aversion to animal foods, and rightly so if you’re picturing how animals are raised in industrial settings. When I advocate for inclusion of these food sources, I expressly refer to animals raised in natural settings, such as grass-fed, organic, free-range animals and wild-caught fish from well-managed fisheries. Humanely raised farm animals are an important component of regenerative farming practices. You will pay a premium for a good cause. Don’t just go for the filet mignon but consider organ meats and those parts that are higher in collagen and fat.

Keep it out

Another benefit of moving away from convenience foods is that you will also be able to reduce your exposure to toxins that are used in conventional farming and food processing. The United States does not do a good job keeping these chemicals out of our food supply, and more and more evidence is emerging how turning our collective gaze away from this issue is putting the health of everyone, but especially pregnant women and babies, at risk.

All in all, when you decide to shift to a traditional real foods diet, you and your family will be spending more time in the kitchen preparing and eating delicious meals together, a great way of “nesting.”

© 2022 Christiane Siebert