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But I'm so hungry! - What to eat in pregnancy

Updated on July 17, 2010

It's easy to eat for two when you're pregnant, but if you eat for two, you'll end up weighing as much as two!

It's hard being a woman, isn't it? The one time when you should feel free to stuff your face with gay abandon, and the one time that your body almost demands that you do exactly this, is the time when you need to be more careful than ever about what you put into your body. After putting about 60 pounds on when I was pregnant with my first child (and shedding blood, sweat and tears to get back to normal), unfortunately, I am fairly experienced in this respect.

It's an easy trap to fall into though. As soon as you announce your good news, friends and family immediately double your portion size, and not wanting to seem rude, you tuck in! If you try to eat well, the same people are immediately suspicious. When I was expecting my second child, and desperately trying to eat healthily, a family member who shall remain nameless (!!) was just about convinced I had an eating disorder after seeing how differently I was approaching my diet the second time round.

How much is too much?

When pregnant you should aim to gain between 21 and 36 lbs according to medical guidelines. However, once again, I take issue with these guidelines because I think they put pressure on the expectant mother to conform to something that may not be right for her. I only gained 18 lbs with my 8lb child, and can say that this was my easiest and most pleasurable pregnancy. My blood pressure and all the other pregnancy gubbins were always spot on, and my midwife often remarked how well I looked. It was also my easiest labour. However, my first pregnancy, where I gained 60lbs, went fine too, and I was perfectly healthy all the way thorough (if a bit uncomfortable!)

I think that if you can say that you are putting good stuff into your body, and are making efforts to stay active, you are doing all that you need to. If you put on a bit more, it's not the end of the world, you can work it off if you chose to when the baby makes an appearance. For me it's not about the number, it's about how you feel. Having said that, beware of putting too much on - it doesn't just disappear when you have you new baby in your arms. And don't go the other way and obsess over calories - your baby needs sustenance and so do you.

Before we begin - supplements

If you were actively trying for a child, you were probably already taking a supplement designed for pregnancy, but if you weren't, you might want to look at taking one. There are all kinds of fancy ones on the market, many now incorporate omega 3, which is supposed to support healthy eye and brain development in your baby. These pregnancy supplements are well marketed and pretty pricey.

I'm not a doctor, so I'll probably get shot for saying this, but if you have a healthy diet and no medical problems, you're probably OK to just buy the bog standard Folic acid, which is about a tenth of the price. In our society, where for the most part we are well nourished and have access to good quality food, it is unlikely that any of us will be deficient enough in anything to warrant taking a supplement designed for pregnancy.

Folic acid is essential however, so don't scrimp on it! Despite all of what I've just said however, in all of my pregnancies, I have manically searched for the 'best' 'most complete' supplement and have paid dearly for them all! I think a mother's instinct to provide for her child kicks in early on. In a non-pregnant state my sanity returns and I chide myself for succumbing to evils of the marketing man, praying on my fears that my baby will be intellectually inferior and optically challenged if I don't take omega 3. I'm not blind or (that) stupid, and my Mum never took the stuff!

Any way, it goes without saying that if you have any questions about taking supplements in pregnancy, you should seek advice from your carers - they'll know best.

'Eating for two' - the early days

Most women find that during the first few weeks of pregnancy their appetite and tastes change. There are no hard and fast rules here. You may go crazy for sugar and want to cram cream cakes down your neck all day, or you may go all queasy and want nothing more than water and fruit. Every woman (and every pregnancy) is different. So, it stands to reason that some women gain more weight than others in the first weeks.

No one really knows what causes pregnancy cravings or sickness. Most people accept that it's your body's way of responding to the huge hormonal changes it's going through. If you have really strong cravings, or suffer badly with sickness, there is little you can do but succumb and give your body what it wants. Don't make the same mistake that I did though and think that just because you are craving something, that you need to eat four times as much of it as you normally would. So, if your body wants ice cream, have a scoop or two NOT a tub or two. I very much doubt if any pregnant woman's unborn child really needed 12 snickers bars - one usually does the job.

If you have sickness, then you probably long for the day when you can sit down and eat a gut-buster meal and not feel like dying during the process. I can honestly say that I have never felt as miserable and ill as when I had morning sickness (on a night incidentally). One night when I was particularly exhausted, I tearfully wondered if it was all worth it, which, of course, it is.

Whenever I have experienced morning sickness, nothing that is supposed to help ever did. I tried ginger tea, ginger biscuits, ginger everything. I tried sea bands. I tried acupuncture. I tried reflexology. Nothing did the trick. In fact I personally know of no women whose sickness was sent into retreat by anything, least of all a gingersnap. They may work for you though, so give them all a try.

If nothing does work though, all I can suggest is trying to stay hydrated and eat what you can, no matter what it is. If all you can face is water and dry cereal - go for it! If you are really worried about your baby missing out on what it needs, you could speak to your doctor, but rest assured your unborn will be creaming off exactly what it needs - even if you suffer as a consequence (and it doesn't end when you push them out either!)

Most women are utterly exhausted during the first trimester - more so with second and subsequent pregnancies if you have other children to care for. This being the case, eating for energy is a major priority during this period, although if you are either craving things or are unable to face food, this will be harder than it sounds.

So, here are some tips! If you are craving sweet foods try to eat them in moderation and spread your consumption out over the day. Hopefully by doing this, you'll avoid the sugar rush/crash cycle, which will only exacerbate your exhaustion and will also make any sickness you experience worse. You could try eating sweet fruit in place of sugary treats (I know - that's not likely to happen!), or at least make sure you eat plenty of fruit (and veg) as well. Beyond this, keeping the rest of your diet as healthy as you can, by incorporating a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals should help. Also, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoiding caffeinated drinks. Caffeine should be avoided from here on in. As with most things, a bit is fine, but if you're a Starbucks kind of girl, you might need to switch to decaf if you drink more than three or four cups of tea of coffee a day. The upside of this is that when you give birth, caffeine will actually have an effect you - a much needed affect!

If you are feeling sick, keeping your fluids up is a priority, and will also help your energy levels. You could try drinking fruit juice to help get a bit of sugar down. Many women find that cereals are a good bet when suffering from morning sickness. Cereal is an excellent choice, as most are high in fibre, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. So, a good multi-tasking foodstuff then! If you can't face the thought of milk, you could try the cereal dry. If you can force down some fruit or veg, all the better for it, and if you're really off protein foods like meat, eggs and cheese, you could try a protein rich grain, like quinoa, which is similar to cous-cous in taste and appearance. Anything you can keep down is a bonus if you're sick though, so just eat what you can, and try to remember - it doesn't last forever.

You'll probably find that during the first trimester, you put on seven or eight pounds, but some women put on much more, some much less. It'll probably even out at some point during your pregnancy, so don't worry.

The second trimester

By 15 or 16 weeks, you'll probably notice your sickness abating if you suffered from it. The same for cravings in my experience, although a lot of women crave various things throughout their pregnancy. You'll also start to feel a bit less exhausted and more like your old self, so now is the time to make sure your diet is the best it can be, not only to give your baby the best start, but also to ensure that you get the most out of your pregnancy, and have the energy to get through those first, grueling, weeks with a newborn.

Now is the time to start building up your stores of iron, as many women see their iron levels plummet in pregnancy. You can take iron supplements if you find that your iron levels are low, but nothing beats getting it the old fashioned way! Try to eat red meat regularly, and sock up on green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli. I'm a big spinach fan, not only because it's rich in iron, but also because it's contains folic acid. It's also really versatile. Gone are the days of it coming out of a can, or being boiled to death. You can now buy it at the salad counter, and it's just as good made into a salad as it is cooked (better in my book.)

Your baby will really start 'taking' from you towards the end of this trimester, which is why it's so important to fill your tank in advance. We've already talked about iron, but you should also be upping your intake of calcium rich foods (not only dairy products like milk and cheese, but also green, leafy veg like broccoli). You can eat and drink low fat dairy products to help keep unwanted weight gain in check - don't worry they're just as rich in the good stuff! By ensuring that you generally eat a balanced diet, featuring a variety of fruit and vegetables as well as protein and carbohydrate foods, you'll ensure that you have plenty to draw on over the coming months.

You should also aim to eat a few portions of fish a week, although avoid warm water fish like shark, tuna and swordfish, as their high mercury levels might harm your baby. Oily fish like salmon and mackerel are perfect though, as they are rich in omega 3 (remember, the stuff that makes you clever and erm, not blind). Oily fish is also great for your skin, so will add to your newly acquired pregnancy glow.

You are pregnant though, and this trimester is the one that you are likely to enjoy the most, so don't spoil it by obsessing over what you eat. Allow yourself plenty of treats too - you deserve it!

The third trimester

By now, you'll be starting to notice the effects of pregnancy on you body more each day, so in addition to all that you are already doing, now is the time to eat to help you stay as comfortable as possible. Many women suffer with heartburn throughout their pregnancy, but you will almost certainly experience it in the final few weeks. All that baby inside you pushes stomach acid up into your esophagus, making meal times uncomfortable.

To help with heartburn, avoid greasy, salty, processed or acidic foods. So everything from Macdonald's to grapefruit really. This isn't always possible or practical, so keep antacids close by at all times! These are safe to take whilst you are pregnant and deliver rapid relief. If you get caught short though, a glass of milk will help take the sting off.

As a consequence of our evolution from four legged forager to the two legged uprights we are now, when we carry children, they exert massive pressure on our nether regions. We have this to thank for our post pregnancy pelvic floor woes, but also our propensity to suffer from hemorrhoids when pregnant. Not all women suffer, but many do, and it's not pleasant. Although there is nothing you can eat to prevent piles, you can ensure that you eat a high fibre diet and drink plenty of water if you do. This should make moving your bowels a far less harrowing experience! It will also help counter the constipation the many pregnant women suffer from, so it's a good idea all round. Eat lots of fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains.

Eating food for energy will obviously be a priority for you, so keep up with the carbs! At around 34 weeks you can start taking raspberry leaf tea, either as a liquid preparation, or in tablet form. Raspberry leaf tea is available at pharmacies and health food stores, and helps to tone and prepare your uterus in preparation for labour. It's been used for generations, and midwives encourage it's use. It's supposed to help your body be more effective in the second stage of labour. Whether it makes any difference, I can't say, but I took it with all of mine - and anything is worth a try!

Childbirth and beyond...

Don't forget to give some consideration to what you may want to eat when you're in labour. With all of my children, I crammed my hospital bag full of energy bars, drinks and glucose tablets, then was too sick (or in too much pain) eat anything at all. However, it's worth packing things like this anyway - even if it's just your other half who ends up troffing it. It'll also come in handy when you are on the recovery ward. I remember waiting all night, wondering if anyone was going to bring me a sandwich on the ward - which of course they didn't, so a stash of goodies will serve you well.

In your last weeks of pregnancy, if you have the energy, try to stock your freezer up. You'll be grateful for a choice of healthy meals to eat on your return from hospital. Take aways are fine the odd night, but relying on them does nothing for your post-pregnancy self esteem. Feeling as though you're feeding your body well, will make you feel good about yourself and will give you the energy to fight the sleepless nights!

Don't put pressure on yourself to lose any unwanted pregnancy pounds. Remember - nine months on, nine months off. If you stick to making the healthy choices you did in pregnancy, and remember the golden rule - everything in moderation - the weight will come off without you having to kill yourself in the process. Plenty of activity like pushing the pram, will contribute to healthy weight loss too. Joining a post-pregnancy exercise class will make a real difference, and has the added benefit of enabling you to meet up with new mums in the same position as you.

Above all, enjoy your pregnancy!


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