From the time you become pregnant, your body undergoes many changes, both expected and otherwise (who knew about that incessant itching as your skin stretches?) You may begin to feel a little like someone else has taken charge, and you’ve become a rather curious passenger in your own body.
While it seems perfectly acceptable to talk about how you might be having an impact on your baby, we seem to talk less about how much your baby also influences you from the moment of conception. Immediately, that little being demands regular feeding (and extreme nausea if you don’t comply) and rest at sometimes quite inappropriate moments. That sudden sweet tooth, or craving for pickles you’ve developed can leave you feeling that you’re feeding your baby not yourself, as your habitual tastes start to change. As your organs begin to move around to make room for your growing uterus, you may also find that you have to re-learn physical sensations that you have taken for granted. Hunger may no longer feel like hunger, and it may take a little longer to realise that unusual pain in your stomach means you’re bursting for the toilet.
For many women, the changing shape of their body can feel surprisingly upsetting, and the upset itself can induce feelings of guilt about being ‘selfish’. In those weeks before you start to look pregnant, watching your stomach expand can fill you with anxiety. In our body conscious age, with endless photos of celebrity mums and their neat little bumps, this can lead to feeling frumpy rather than glowing. Coupled with other physical changes, like your teenage spots making an unwanted reappearance, body confidence may be replaced with feelings of shame.
This can be particularly difficult for some people more than others. If you have a history of eating disorders, pregnancy can be a very anxious time leading to a re-emergence of previous difficulties. And if you are transgender or non-gender conforming, the changes to your body can feel challenging – both to yourself and also due to the reactions of others.
As you begin to look more ‘pregnant’, with a clearly defined bump, you may begin to feel more proud of your body. The external evidence of your fertility may start to attract admiring glances and, as your tummy becomes harder to ignore, you may want show it off. However, this also brings unwanted comments from others that can leave you feeling increasingly self-conscious. Well-meaning friends who talk about how “massive” you are, ‘affectionate’ nicknames (note to friends/family/partners out there- it’s never ok to call someone “fatty”) and observations about how you are carrying “wide” can leave you with a disproportionate sense of your size. Starting to explore the world of maternity bras which look a lot like those your granny used to wear, and finding the maternity sections on the high street overpopulated by grey jersey can leave you grieving for the sensual, sexual woman you were before pregnancy. Unfortunately, this can be perpetuated by social pressure to cover up and not impose your bump on the world.
Many women are used to counterbalancing any weight gain with subsequent food restriction, and being unable to offset the added pounds can be very unsettling. This can again lead to a vicious cycle, as the feeling that your body is being sacrificed to nurture your growing baby results in a sense of resentment – and added guilt about feeling anything but happy. In contrast, being able to eat in an unrestricted way can also lead to overeating and confusion about what is an appropriate amount to eat. For the approximately 1 in a hundred women who have experienced an eating disorder, becoming pregnant and the loss of control over their physical shape can be very difficult. If you find yourself increasingly preoccupied with your weight, food intake or physical changes – or if you have a history of eating problems – don’t be afraid to discuss this with your antenatal carers. Getting extra support during your pregnancy can make this time less of a struggle. If this sounds like you, check out www.b-eat.co.uk or speak to your midwife.
In fact, pregnancy can be an ideal time to re-educate our often mildly disordered attitude to food, weight and body image. Taking the weighing scales out of the equation, as this is one time in your life you really need to gain some weight, you can begin to think about food as healthy and nourishing rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is lots of information on the internet about eating a balanced diet during pregnancy to help you get into habits which can be used long after the baby arrives. If, like the majority of women in the UK, you’ve also been used to dieting take a look at the growing literature about breaking the diet mentality (Laura Thomas’ Just Eat It is a great start).
There’s so much conflicting information out there, so I spoke to Laura from the Pregnancy Food Company to bust some myths and common worries.
Laura is a qualified nutritional therapist who has spent many years researching both the anatomical and nutritional subjects of the female body. Specialising in fertility, pregnancy and post natal health, she provides women with 1:1 advice, healthy snacks, and nutritional guides.
I’ve only eaten carbs for weeks…
It’s totally normal to crave carbohydrates in the first trimester, especially if you’re feeling nauseous and/or being sick. Try to have wholemeal, brown rice or sweet potatoes if you can. However, if you can only stomach crackers for a while – know that some food is better than nothing at all.
I’ve been too sick to eat…
The first trimester is commonly the time most women feel nauseous or experience vomiting. Luckily, for the first weeks of gestation and until the placenta develops at around 8-10 weeks, baby is actually receiving it’s nutrients from the ‘yolk sack’. These nutrients will have been gathered by your body from foods eaten prior to and around conception, and will now be used by your body to nourish your growing baby, so do try not to worry. If you can keep liquids down, try to go for a nice vegetable, fruit and avocado smoothie just to get a good hit of nutrients in.
If you are vomiting regularly, are dehydrated, and cannot keep any food down it’s always advisable to speak to your midwife or doctor as you may have hyperemesis gravidarum which requires fairly urgent medical treatment.
What about salt and sugar?
Sugar and salt cravings can sometimes be a sign of a deficiency, so try to make sure you are getting enough chromium and magnesium in your diet from sources such as organic meats, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, eggs and quinoa. Having a good bit of dark chocolate, or a well balanced snack is a good way of satisfying your sweet tooth. If you are really craving sweet things such as cookies, biscuits etc, consider making your own at home so you know what’s going in them. If you don’t have any health complications, and are eating a well balanced diet without processed foods, know it’s recommended to add sea salt or Himalayan salt to your foods to taste.
I really miss my morning coffee…
You don’t have to avoid coffee completely. It’s advised to keep intake below 200mg of caffeine per day during pregnancy, which is equivalent to around two small cups of coffee. Just bear in mind that other food and drink, such as green tea, chocolate and fizzy drinks, may also have caffeine in them. It’s also very common to develop an aversion to strong flavoured drinks such as coffee, so you may find you don’t fancy it anyway!
I’ve eaten a banned food!
As long as you are not taking any supplements with vitamin A as retinol, having a bit of liver or other organ meats once a week can be beneficial. So if you accidentally ate some fresh liver pate, don’t panic!
Soft cheese such as Camembert can be eaten during pregnancy if cooked, so baked Camembert here we come! Blue cheese is still best to steer clear of.
Runny eggs are great during pregnancy, just make sure they have the lion stamp on the egg and choose free range local if you can.
Deli meats are only really an issue if they have been sat out at a counter all day. If you buy them in a packet from a reputable source to eat at home within the use by date, you can enjoy them! Shellfish are a great addition for a pregnancy diet with lots of iodine and vitamin B12. Just make sure it is cooked through and piping hot.
Raw fish is a great source of omega 3 DHA and smoked salmon, sushi etc are all eaten every day throughout pregnancy in many eastern cultures. Just make sure you choose a good, fresh source and as an extra measure we can also freeze and defrost it at home before eating – this goes for smoked salmon too. Two to three portions of fish per week, from small fish such as trout, mackerel, herring, turbot and salmon, is ideal.
The main safety concern with food is that it is fresh and has been hygienically handled, so if you are happy that you have sourced food from a reputable supermarket/cafe, do try not to worry – and just enjoy the flavours!
Supplements, what if I haven’t been taking them?
Supplements are exactly what they say on the tin – a supplement. So whilst very useful to protect against deficiencies, we should be trying to get most of our nutrition from our food anyway. A lot of the time women are many weeks pregnant before they realise, and may not have been taking a supplement – and their babies are just fine! As soon as you do know you are pregnant, our advice is to take a good quality food state supplement such as Wild Nutrition or Cytoplan, with folic acid as methylfolate. We also love Nothing Fishy Omega 3 capsules too.
I can’t afford or find organic food…
Yes, organic food has been found to have lower amounts of pesticides and a higher nutrient content than conventionally farmed foods. However, those non organic fruits and veggies are still going to provide goodness and should absolutely still be consumed if you can’t go organic. There is a list on Google called the ‘dirty dozen’ and ‘clean fifteen’, it details which foods have been most heavily sprayed with pesticides/herbicides and which are ‘cleaner’. I find it useful tool if I can’t buy organic. Just know that it’s much better to get those fruits and veggies in if you can, rather than panicking about it’s origin.
Will my diet affect my breastmilk?…
The female body is a truly amazing work of nature. Even under dire circumstances, good quality breastmilk will be produced with a nice balance of protein, carbohydrate, fat and immune boosting properties for your baby. With this information you can rest assured that your body will do its absolute best to provide good nutrition for your baby, even if you don’t feel you are getting the right nutrients in. Eating nice healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, wild alaskan salmon and cold olive oil will help boost supplies to your growing baby. Do be aware that fructose does transfer easily into breastmilk, so be mindful of having too many sweets, sugary drinks and processed foods. B vitamins, choline, vitamin A, vitamin D and DHA are all important nutrients for breastfeeding, aiming to get these from foods is ideal, but don’t forget you can also take a good quality supplement to assist, and put your mind at rest. Remember – the main reason we advise a healthy diet whilst breastfeeding is actually to take care of you and stop you feeling exhausted, becoming run down and ill, and protecting your mental health too.
If you’ve chosen to breastfeed you will require around an extra 500kcal for the 6 months of exclusive feeding.
I’ve got gestational diabetes and I’m worried…
This condition is on the rise. Partly due to the fact that more of us are living with diabetes prior to pregnancy, and also due to the sheer amount of fast release carbohydrates so readily available to us. If you have been diagnosed, please know that in the vast majority of cases it can be successfully reversed with diet and lifestyle choices. The main changes to make are to do with carbohydrates in all forms – reducing foods that have a negative effect on our blood sugar control. A diet consisting of protein, fats, vegetables and a small amount of fruit, alongside a good level of pregnancy safe exercise each day, should be beneficial in controlling the condition and therefore greatly reducing the associated risk factors.
If you are worried about any of your eating habits or food intake during pregnancy, do discuss this with your midwife or healthcare provider.
The keen awareness of your body during pregnancy is also one way of ensuring that you start to listen to what it needs. Beginning to notice your body’s signals and respond to them can put you back in touch with your physical self, which is helpful not only for your continued pregnancy but for birth and the postnatal period too. Noticing these more primal signs now can open up a more instinctual sense of yourself, encouraging trust in your body’s ability to manage new demands. Taking pride in what it is achieving can help you to form a new relationship with your body. Take time to rub oil into that expanding stomach, encourage your partner to admire the almost daily changes and answer those judgemental comments with a proud ‘I know, isn’t it amazing’. Because it really is.