When pregnancy’s cravings strike, most expectant mamas reach for salty, sweet or sour foods like mini candy bars or boxed macaroni and cheese. And while there’s nothing wrong with indulging in these types of treats on occasion, nutritionists are quick to point out that packaged foods are made up of primarily processed ingredients and offer little to no nutritional value.
Pregnancy is not the time to take on a strict diet or obsess about what you are eating—doing so can be both dangerous and stressful—but in recent years, many health advocates have encouraged moms-to-be to try to “eat clean.”
“To eat clean is to consume real, fresh, minimally processed whole foods free of refined, artificial, chemical, and hormone- and antibiotic-containing ingredients,” explains Nicole Silber, RD, CSP, CDN, a nutrition specialist with Middleberg Nutrition in New York City. In other words, it is to eat food in its most natural form.
Although it can be difficult to step away from your favorite prepackaged delicacy, pregnancy is the ideal time to clean up your plate, Silber says. Here’s a look at how both you and your babe-to-be can benefit from “real” food.
Although there’s not a clear definition for what counts as “clean” food, Silber says the buzz-term “clean eating” refers to a lifestyle that focuses more on quality and less on portion size. “Think whole grains, fresh produce, organic animal products; plan to ditch artificial sweeteners, white sugar and trans fat,” she advises.
Some of the typical staples include organic eggs, quinoa, olive and coconut oil, fresh vegetables, lean meats and fish, and nonprocessed almond and peanut butter.
What you drink also matters. Coffee, soda and sugary drinks are out, but it’s important to drink plenty of water—around 64 ounces a day on average, recommends Mary Jane Detroyer, MS, RD, CDN, a nutrition and exercise specialist in New York City.
Detroyer says that even if you don’t adopt a completely clean diet for every meal, it’s essential for expectant women to try to eat nonprocessed foods each day. That means eating around 2 ½ to 3 cups of vegetables and 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit, plus an adequate amount of protein and healthy sources of DHA, depending on your doctor’s recommendations for your daily needs.
Eating a diet of primarily nonprocessed foods offers several benefits for both you and your growing babe. “A wholesome, nonprocessed diet can improve energy, mood, satiety, bowel regularity and help you shed the baby weight after birth,” says Silber.
Contrast that with a diet high in refined carbs, trans fat, added salt and white sugar, which can contribute to fatigue, hypertension, gastrointestinal (GI) upset, excessive hunger, weight gain and even hormonal and metabolic disturbances.
“There is no data to suggest that processed foods are ‘dangerous’ during pregnancy,” says Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, at Ingrain Health in San Diego. “However, they do contribute excess calories that can lead to excessive weight gain.” Especially disturbing is the amount of sodium in processed and packaged foods, which can be problematic for women with pregnancy-induced hypertension, or preeclampsia. And the high amount of sugar can be dangerous for women with gestational diabetes, Ferraro notes.
Keep in mind that what you eat matters for your baby on the way, too. “Eating clean means you provide adequate fiber, fluid, vitamins and minerals to allow the body to function optimally and provide good nutrition not only to the mom but also to her developing baby,” explains Detroyer.
“During pregnancy, the body pools all its resources to support the growing fetus,” Silber notes. “This can be emotionally and physically draining, with the potential to exhaust mom of essential nutrients. It’s especially important to eat clean because unadulterated foods preserve their fiber and essential vitamins and minerals.”
A nonchemical romance
Keep in mind that while processed foods might taste good and satiate you for a short time, they’re not necessarily the best choice for nourishing baby.
“By eating clean, you prevent your baby from being exposed to toxic chemicals … From the moment of conception, even small amounts of these substances can have an impact,” says Detroyer.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t currently have any warnings issued for pregnant women to avoid common processed foods available in the supermarket, studies have shown that newborns have high levels of certain chemicals in their bodies, which likely come from what mom ate or drank during her pregnancy.
“Many of the new additives in question —like artificial sweeteners, food coloring, propellant, harsh pesticides and carrageenan—have not been around long enough to be proven safe,” notes Silber. To avoid any potential harmful effects, she advises steering clear of questionable additives.
Of course, no mom-to-be is going to have a perfect prenatal diet every day— just do the best you can to fill your plate with healthy, nonprocessed food as often as you can. Detroyer notes, “It is impossible to avoid all of these artificial substances, but by eating clean you are doing the best you can to avoid many of them.”