Simple changes you can make to give your baby a head start

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Simple changes you can make to give your baby a head start

by: Tiffany Mahler, Japan Birth Resource Network The Birth Education Center of Okinawa | .
published: May 10, 2016

My first pregnancy I made the mistake of listening to the wrong “experts” on the Internet (and my doctor at the time) when I made my food choices.  I was so worried I would make a mistake and harm my baby that I didn’t trust my intuition.  I had eaten fairly healthy as a child and thankfully my mom was wise enough to teach me about nutrition while teaching me to cook.  I even went to a cooking and nutrition internship after high school.  But all that knowledge went out the window when I saw those two pink lines in a hotel in Colorado Springs.  I read things online like “give into your cravings!” “It’s normal to crave junk food and candy” and, my favorite, “even if it’s only junk food you can keep down those first months, your baby will get all the vitamins and minerals it needs from your body!”  These statements can be very misleading.  I’ve learned a lot since my first pregnancy.  My last two pregnancies were much healthier and I believe my babies have been healthier for it.

Let’s get rid of that first nutrition myth.  If you are craving junk food, your body is telling you that you are lacking vital nutrients for your growing baby.  It might be “normal” to crave that junk food, but there is definitely nothing natural about junk food (considering it’s only been around the last 50-60 years or so).  The biggest and best change you can make during pregnancy is to cut out the processed foods.  This was hard for me at first because I’d become used to eating my junk food, and I liked it.  Selfishly I wanted to eat it, but I knew it was better for baby if I didn’t, and that helped give me the determination that I needed to keep it out of the house.  When I say junk food, I’m talking about anything processed and in a wrapper.  If it’s wrapped up and has an ingredient list two inches long, it’s probably not good for you!

The thing to remember is the more nutrients you store up in your body, the less you will crave the junk food because your body will finally start feeling satiated.  Your baby will be getting what he or she needs and you will be getting what you need, too.  I’ve learned to shop the outside edges of the commissary and grocery stores (only venturing down the aisles that I knew I needed  something from).  In the outside edges of the grocery store you’ll find the fresh vegetables and fruits, the meats and eggs and the dairy products.  All pretty good choices for a healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding journey.  In fact, I like to think of my “mama diet” just about in that order - first lots of veggies, then good quality meats, fish and eggs (preferably locally raised animals that have been fed natural diets), then good quality fats (coconut oil, avocados and fat from fish), and lastly fruits and dairy products.  When you eat healthier meats, you can be sure you’re getting good fats to help build your baby’s brain, too.  That is a huge deal!  Fish is an exceptionally great choice for pregnancy since those fats are the same ones you’d be getting out of a DHA supplement.  

Funny story about fats and pregnancy…. At the start of my last pregnancy we were living in Peru, which had wonderful, wild caught salmon at a very reasonable price, so we’d been eating it at least 2-3 times a week at that point, plus ceviche and the occasional sushi (Peru was a haven for good food).  I went to an early routine OB appointment and my doctor made mention of diet.  He said to make sure I wasn’t eating more than one serving of fatty fish per week.  “Because, you know…fat.” he said.  The next thing out of his mouth was that I needed to be taking DHA supplements.  I asked him, “Well, don’t you think it’d be a good idea to just get the DHA I need from the fish I’ve been eating, instead of a pill?” He just stared at me blankly, unaware of the mindless circle he’d made.

Obviously, I didn’t take his advice.  I knew from the research I’d done over the last four years, that it’s always better to get your nutrition from food before turning to a pill.  If there are gaps in your diet, then you can fill them with supplements, but your body will absorb nutrients better when it comes from a whole food because many nutrients work synergistically in the body (for example, you need fat to absorb vitamin A, D, E and K).  We know a lot about the human body, but we really are just starting to understand how the body absorbs nutrients.  What better way to get those nutrients than from a whole food, the way they were intended to be eaten!

And that last myth?  It’s partly true.  Your baby will take nutrients from your body if you don’t eat enough of them during pregnancy, but it is definitely not optimal.  Calcium and other  minerals will be leached out of your bones and teeth if you don’t get enough on a consistent basis for your growing little one.  Dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, just to name a few) are some excellent sources for both of these minerals.  I took a calcium and magnesium supplement during the third trimester of my last pregnancy, and it helped with some problems I was having with sleeping, so I probably wasn’t getting enough in my diet.  They can be hard nutrients to get, but it’s still always good to seek out the food sources first and supplement second.

These guidelines can be incorporated into your breastfeeding journey, as well.  I counted it up the other day, and I’ve now breastfed for 4 years!  I could hardly believe it!  My oldest is almost 5, and my youngest is six months.  I am so thankful to be able to give my babies an amazing head start by feeding them the perfect food of breastmilk.  DHA, calcium and many other nutrients continue to be important in your diet as you nurse your little ones.  Knowing that keeps me eating well!  It’s created a habit of healthy eating for our family.  Don’t be discouraged if you fall back into eating processed foods - everyone has setbacks (I know I do).  But remember your babies and know you’re doing it for them - you’ll find the willpower to continue eating well and giving them the nutrition that they deserve.

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