Five key areas to consider for the best pregnancy possible.
1. The Importance of a Whole Foods Diet
What is a whole foods diet? Whole foods are those that are unprocessed and unrefined. I like to think that they are those foods you can picture growing in nature. For example, I can imagine and trace the steps back to where my oatmeal came from, or any grain for that matter. Or fruit, beans, meats, etc. Why does this matter? First of all, whole foods are loaded with vitamins and minerals. We wouldn’t need prenatal vitamins if we simply ate a whole foods diet. The first actual synthetic vitamins weren’t even created until the early 1900’s, so generations of women made babies without supplements. They also ate far fewer processed foods, so their diet was superior nutritionally. You can get all the key prenatal nutrients from food: folate, choline, Vit A, Calcium, Omega 3′s, etc. Now, I never tell a preggo not to take her prenatals, but I will admit that when pregnant I was not a religious pill taker. I watched my diet and took about half the recommended dose of my vitamins. I didn’t feel the need to meet 100% of my needs synthetically if I also ate a well balanced diet.
The other reason a whole foods diet is so important goes beyond what the eye can see. More and more research is surrounding what we call “epigenetics.” Epi in Greek means above or over and genetics means, well, I think you know. Basically it’s the study of changes in gene expression by mechanisms that do not involve change of the actual gene itself. There are mechanisms that can turn genes “on” or “off,” and these factors can be influenced by diet. Fascinating stuff. Research has shown in mice that poor diets can influence genes expression AND those changes can be passed on to subsequent generations. “Many epigenetic effects stem from the mother’s activities during pregnancy. For example, if a mother overweight during her pregnancy, it can affect weight control mechanisms in her child, leading to obesity or diabetes years later. These effects can even be passed down through multiple generations, so eating particular foods or being exposed to environmental factors could lead to effects in grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” (http://persagen.com/docs/Epigenetics.htm)
So eat a whole foods diet. Enough said.
2. Eat Foods Rich in Choline
I know I said I avoid vitamins. That being said, there are a few exceptions I make, one of which is choline. The thing is, most prenatal vitamins don’t contain choline. The research is still emerging (but it’s there!) that choline is a critical nutrient during pregnancy. Nobody ever talks about it though. Research is showing that similarly to folate, choline plays a vital role in closing the neural tube and preventing neural tube defects. In fact, the role choline plays typically occurs before a person even knows they are pregnant, much like folate, so sufficient body stores are important.
Choline is also implicated in healthy nerve and memory function. One study showed that choline-deficient pregnant rats gave birth to offspring that had memory deficiencies later in life. Extrapolated to a human timeline, it appears that around week 27 is the critical time for choline to help create critical pathways for short-term memory formation. Offspring from deficient mothers won’t notice the effects until after the age of 30, according to the rat models.
If that wasn’t enough, research also shows in rats that high dose choline can help mitigate the brain-damaging effects of alcohol abuse by pregnant women. No excuse for drinking, but fascinating that there might be some help for disadvantaged babies. Also choline may also help prevent preeclampsia, premature birth and low birth weight. I have to say, what does choline not do? And come again, it’s not in my prenatal vitamin?
It’s recommended that women get 450 mg of choline per day. Good food sources include milk, broccoli, and red meat, and one of the best sources is eggs. Of course there are also supplement options. Omelette, anyone?
3. Get Some Vitamin D
Yeah, Vitamin D again. Unfortunately Vitamin D is just one of those vitamins that is hard to get from food and seemingly hard to get from the sun depending on where you live. Here in the Northwest we need a little Vitamin D boost once in awhile and especially during pregnancy. Did you know that every tissue in the human body contains Vitamin D receptors? The crazy thing is we don’t yet know what all these tissues are doing with Vitamin D .. we just know they are set up to bind the little guy, and, we assume, use it in some way. Similarly the placenta uses Vitamin D to support its development and growth. Vitamin D can also help prevent preeclampsia and, in babies, help prevent allergies, Type I Diabetes, and MS. None of these connections are definitive, but there are links showing deficient mothers have offspring with increased risks in these areas. And of course there is the obvious. Serious Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets. While rare this is still a concern. Given there seems to be no harm in taking some extra D, I do add Vitamin D to my supplement regimen and always recommend it to those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
4. Omega 3’s
I know we are still living in a low-fat era, but pregnancy is no time to skimp on the fat. A good amount of healthy fat is key to support baby’s brain development both in utero and beyond. While choline appears to promote normal memory function, Omega 3’s assist with learning, attention span and overall intelligence. For mom’s benefit, Omega 3 fats are also anti-inflammatory and incredibly heart healthy. They may even help regulate mood, so if you are prone to crabbiness with hormonal fluctuations these fats certainly can’t hurt. There are plenty of good food sources including salmon, nuts, certain seeds like flax seed and hemp seed, and grass-fed meats. One of my all time favorite sources is sardines. While they may not be your favorite food, they are rich in Omega 3’s, Vitamin D, Calcium, and protein. Plus they are super low in mercury. The perfect pregnancy food! If for any reason you are not consuming Omega 3 food sources daily, consider a fish oil supplement. As with all supplements, consult with your doctor or nutritionist to make sure you make the best choice. Some Omega 3 sources, such as cod liver oil, are very high in Vitamin A which is not advised during pregnancy.
5. Move it!
This may not be a nutrient per say, but if we could bottle it I’m sure we would. You need to move! Yes, exercise is key in a healthy pregnancy. It helps boost your energy, maintain a healthy weight, and gets that blood moving around your entire body. Women who exercise tend to have less aches and pains, better sleep, more strength for the all-important event, birth! Exercise may even help prevent the onset of preeclampsia. That alone should get you moving daily. The common recommendation is that it’s safe to keep doing whatever activities you were doing before with a gradual reduction in intensity as the months go on, but even if you rarely exercised before pregnancy most OBGYNs would agree that walking and light aerobic activity is safe and effective. Just discuss with your doctor to devise the best plan … and then get moving!