It’s now time for part 2 of my pregnancy nutrition series. In part 1 I discussed prenatal supplements, but even more important than supplements is what you eat and don’t eat.
What many women don’t know is that their nutrition status up to 12 months prior to conception can influence their child’s future health. Therefore, if you are planning on conceiving in the near future, make sure you are eating a varied, high-nutrient diet primarily made up of fruit and vegetables. Not only does a good diet improve conditions for a fetus, it can also increase your chances of conceiving.
Why Diet Matters During Pregnancy
It may seem obvious, but what you eat while pregnant is very important in the health of your growing fetus. Growth requires certain nutrients, and our cells are composed of what we eat. And although it was previously thought that the placenta filters out toxins, we now know that this is not the case.
Long-term studies are beginning to indicate that a mother’s diet during pregnancy affects the child for many years by potentially laying the groundwork for cancer and other diseases to occur down the road. Additionally, children of mothers who eat standard American diets are more likely to experience frequent ear infections, allergies, and even autoimmune diseases.
So What Should Mothers and Future Mothers Eat?
Scientists have isolated two key nutrients that are essential for the survival of the fetus: folate and vitamin K. Folate deficiencies cause neural tube defects, and vitamin K deficiencies can cause brain hemorrhages in newborns. To fix these problems, the FDA mandated that cereals and certain flours be enriched with folic acid, and nurses administer a vitamin K shot to babies just minutes after birth. This fractionated view of nutrition is dangerous, because the real solution should be a dietary increase in vegetables, especially dark greens.
Along with folate and vitamin K, fruits and vegetables contain all of the nutrients required for optimal fetal health and future disease prevention. Scientists have discovered over 12,000 phytonutrients in unprocessed plant foods, which work together to detoxify cancer-causing compounds, deactivate free radicals, and enable DNA repair mechanisms. Frighteningly, the low consumption of fruits and vegetables right before and during pregnancy has been implicated in the causation of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer.
What Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?
Fetuses and newborns are very sensitive to toxins in their environment. There are several precautions mothers should take to limit their children’s exposure to harmful substances.
First, try to eat only organic produce, especially when you are consuming the peel/exterior of the fruit or vegetable. This will limit your ingestion of pesticides, which are known carcinogens. You can also minimize your intake of dioxins by reducing dietary fat from animal sources (toxins are stored in fat cells).
We now know that fetuses are adversely affected by listeria, which is found in deli meats and soft cheeses, and toxoplasmosis, a condition caused by a parasite found in cat feces. For this reason, it is best to avoid all of these things and wear disposable gloves to change the litter box if you own a cat.
Other Foods and Substances to Avoid During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding:
- caffeine (no more than 1 cup of coffee per day, especially during the first trimester)
- medications (ask your OB about the safety of specific meds)
- certain herbs and high-dose supplements (vitamin A)
- household cleaners and paint thinners (acetone)
- fish, mollusks, shellfish
- raw milk and cheese
- artificial colors, nitrates, MSG
It is hard to know how safe any fish is, so I recommend avoiding it altogether during pregnancy. To ensure optimal nutrition, I also advise mothers to maintain a mostly plant-based diet and avoid processed foods as much as possible. If you feel like you absolutely must eat animal protein, eggs are your best choice because they are the least contaminated animal protein source. Additionally, supplement with a prenatal vitamin and 200 mg DHA daily.
To read more about prenatal and childhood nutrition, I highly recommend reading Diseaseproof Your Child, by Joel Fuhrman, MD.