Eating healthy is twice as important when you’re feeding two, but it’s easier said than done. Vegetables get boring fast when you need to snack constantly—especially when what you’re really craving is half a dozen chocolate donuts. But nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy are linked to problems from prematurity to birth defects, and if you’re not choosing the right food, you could eat all day and still not get the nutrients you and your baby need.
For many expectant women, organic seems to be the obvious answer. But although organic food can be a good start toward a healthy pregnancy, it may not be enough. “Organic junk food is still junk food,” points out Alexandra Zissu, author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy. A Stanford study last year concluded that organic food may not be any more nutritious than its conventional counterparts. Avoiding pesticides and hormones is smart, but when you need to supercharge your nutrition, organic is just the tip of the iceberg (and we’re not talking lettuce).
One easy way to add nutrition to your diet is to stick to real food. There are three guidelines that can be used to define “real food,” according to Nina Planck, author of Real Food for Mother and Baby. First, it’s food that humans have eaten for hundreds of years. Second, it’s mostly unprocessed. And third, any processing is done in a way that improves its nutritional value. So meat, fruit and vegetables are all in, but white flour is out. Yogurt and cheese are examples of good processed foods; they’re processed to add beneficial bacteria and improve shelf life while maintaining nutrients.
Most pregnancy diet advice focuses on vegetables, fruits, grains and a few lean meats, but Planck argues animal products are key in a good pregnancy diet. “The most important thing a pregnant woman can do is eat nutrient-dense foods,” says Planck. “It’s essential she get plenty of protein and high-quality fats like butter, wild fish and egg yolks.” Animal products are also a good source of vitamin D, which helps your body make the most of its calcium intake. “Calcium is absorbed better with vitamin D, which is only found [naturally] in animal products,” says Planck.
Most important, though, is avoiding “fake” food. “So many foods are marketed as health foods when they’re nothing of the sort,” says Planck. The biggest culprits are energy bars and soy products. If you need portable snacks, go for shelf-stable foods like dried fruit and nuts. “Stick to the whole versions of foods,” agrees Zissu. It’s the simplest way to keep your diet real.
Once you’ve cut out the junk food in disguise, look for truly fresh food—and that doesn’t mean food you bought at the grocery store this morning. “Food draws its nutrients from the soil,” explains Chris Kresser, MD, an integrative medicine practitioner and licensed acupuncturist. “The moment it’s removed from the ground, the nutrient content begins to decline.” One University of California study showed that the vitamin C content of produce drops dramatically as long as it’s stored. “The average carrot travels over 1,800 miles before it gets to your plate,” Kresser says. That means that to get the nutritional value of just one freshly dug carrot, you’d have eat five to 10 supermarket carrots.
If the thought of trying to stuff that many veggies into your expanding belly gives you heartburn, don’t worry. There’s an easier solution: Eat locally grown food. Food from a nearby farm was harvested recently, so it’s denser in nutrients. It’s also fresher, tastier and better for your community. “Local food is more sustainable,” says Kresser, who adds, “I enjoy giving money to a farmer I know.”
The easiest way to find local food is to visit your community farmer’s market— or even buy directly from a local farm. Save money by looking for a community supported agriculture program (CSA) in your neighborhood. When you join, you’ll pay a monthly price and get a box of freshly harvested produce delivered straight to your door.
If you want the absolute freshest food possible, it’s time to take a look at your own backyard. Gardening may sound unrealistic when the first trimester has you too tired to get off the couch, but that’s when Marjory Wildcraft started, and today, she grows 50 percent of her family’s food and teaches backyard gardening with her video series Grow Your Own Groceries.
Wildcraft recommends starting small. “Focus on nutritive plants rather than calories,” she says. Dark, leafy greens like kale, lettuce and spinach are easy to grow, and they’re full of the nutrients missing from the average diet. Sprouts and herbs are another option that won’t strain your green thumb. “Fresh culinary herbs have so much power in them,” says Wildcraft. “They pack a lot of nutrition, and they totally transform a dish.”
Growing your own food will do more than improve your health and your baby’s. “Like most women, I’ve been on a lot of diets,” shares Wildcraft. “I feel that continual searching for what to eat comes from our lack of connection to our food.” Gardening is satisfying because it has real consequences. “Do it right, and you get this amazing bounty of health,” says Wildcraft. “The world makes sense in the garden.”
In addition to the nutritional benefit, a wholesome, local diet offers an added bonus you’re sure to enjoy: taste. “Never forget about flavor,” says Zissu. “Food is nurture, it’s nature, it’s feeding your kids.” The baby in your belly isn’t complaining about your cooking (at least not yet!), but you’re feeding him as much as yourself. “It’s a lovely thing to share good food with your kids,” says Zissu. “What’s better than food?”