I’m pregnant, and as someone who is interested in health and food, I decided to read up on the latest information about how diet can affect pregnancy. Lily Nichols, a registered dietician, nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, surveyed the latest scientific studies to come up with an in-depth guide to eating well while pregnant, titled “Real Food for Pregnancy.”
This book is very comprehensive and covers much ground related to pregnancy diet, supplements, exercise, toxins and lab tests. I hope to shine a light on just a few of the interesting points Nichols makes throughout her book.
Her main premise is to simply eat “real food.” And while she does draw from modern scientific research, she also studied ancestral diets and those of traditional cultures, which refers to dietary practices of people who lived several hundred years ago when mass-produced food was nonexistent. This meant that what was available was solely real food, eaten in its natural, unprocessed form and often obtained from local sources.
Although both conventional nutrition (which Nichols refers to as dietary advice based on the U.S. government’s nutrition policies) and that of traditional cultures have similarities, there are most definitely differences between the two bodies of wisdom. Both emphasize the importance of fresh produce. That is almost where the similarities end.
Conventional nutrition guidelines suggest limiting seafood intake, discourage fatty meat and organ meats, recommend low-fat dairy products, and make clear that the mother needs a high intake of carbohydrates to ensure the baby’s health.
In contrast, traditional cultures “prized the fattiest cuts of meat, went out of their way to obtain seafood (even in landlocked areas), never skimmed the fat off of their milk (if they were a milk-drinking community in the first place), and did not consume anywhere near the level of carbohydrates currently recommended.
Working clinically on gestational diabetes, which is diagnosed in upwards of 18 percent of pregnant women, Nichols was able to put to the test both the recommendations of conventional nutrition advice as well as her “real-food approach” based on traditional wisdom. She found that using the real-food approach helped to reduce by half the number of women requiring insulin. Not only this, but the women who ate real food and limited carbohydrates didn’t have excessive weight gain and had far lower rates of preeclampsia, a major complication in pregnancy.
The real food contained higher levels of nutrients like vitamins A, B12, B6, zinc, iron, DHA, iodine and choline, and the foods containing those vital nutrients are the very foods women are told to avoid in conventional nutrition advice.
Here are some take-home points from Nichols’ book:
Eggs are a superfood during pregnancy, high in choline, a relative of the B-vitamins that fosters normal brain development and prevents neural tube defects. Just two whole eggs meet about half of a pregnant woman’s choline needs. Eggs are also high in DHA, an omega-3 fat that is linked to higher IQs in infants. Beyond this, eggs provide high amounts of folate, B-vitamins, antioxidants crucial to eye and vision development, and trace minerals like iodine and selenium.
The liver is the single richest source of iron, in a form that is very easily absorbed. Iron is critical for the prevention of preeclampsia, hypothyroidism, and preterm birth. It is high in vitamins A, D, E and K, all nutrients that are difficult to obtain otherwise. If eating liver is out of your comfort zone, consider a desiccated (dried) liver supplement, from grass-fed animals. These tasteless capsules provide the nutrition you need with an added boost of energy as well.
Meat on the bone, slow-cooked meats, and bone broth provide gelatin and collagen, which are the richest sources of an important amino acid called glycine. Glycine is crucial for the synthesis of fetal DNA and collagen, and for all of your baby’s bones, organs and connective tissues as they develop rapidly in later pregnancy. If that is not motivation enough to eat some pulled pork or chicken soup, adequate glycine may help to prevent stretch marks in mother’s belly.
If you are vegetarian, this diet is likely not sounding too appetizing. Nichols writes about the challenges of a vegetarian diet during pregnancy and gives tips to optimize a vegetarian diet, including eating eggs and full-fat dairy products (sorry, vegans), seaweed, and soaking whole grains and beans before eating to optimize the absorption of minerals.
If the idea of eating eggs every morning and chicken wings for dinner sounds like a good deal, then you are in luck. And living where we do, we are incredibly lucky to have so many wonderful sources of grass-fed, pastured, humanely raised livestock from which we can obtain our nutrition, helping us to grow healthy and strong Vermont babies for years to come.