Like many expecting moms, I was stubbornly determined from the get-go to look like I was hiding a melon under my shirt at the acme of pregnancy and evade extra weight-gain at all costs. Of course a portion of my determination was vanity, but the devotion to stay lean was rooted firmly in making it through pregnancy as healthy and painlessly as possible.
I was convinced I was a prime candidate for utmost misery. I fully anticipated all the ills the books and articles forewarned: Aches, pains, digestion problems, cramping, swelling, heart burn, nose bleeds, pinched nerves, hair loss, stretch marks etc. etc., the list goes on and on. Based on my BMI, I was warned to expect the maximum weight gain: 35-40 pounds. Fairly slight to begin with, the thought of carrying around that much extra weight made my back and muscles ache long before I started packing on the pounds. I was terrified for my bones and joints and equally, for my thin skin which I was sure was doomed to a forest of stretch marks after growing to such an incomprehensible size. Mere puberty had already left a barrage of stripy, silver scars across my thighs and butt just from the simple act of growing up, so I shuddered to think what a full term pregnancy would do to me.
Plan of attack step 1: Know your caloric needs!
Anticipating the worst, I chose to hit the ground running and downloaded a calorie logging app in the first weeks of pregnancy. After checking and cross checking the algorithms of at least a dozen calorie counting websites and calculators, I reasoned that a woman of my size should be eating about 1300 calories a day, + an additional 100 in the first trimester, (supposedly you don’t need any extra these first 3 months, but I was so VORACIOUS that was never gonna happen,) 200 in the second, and 300 in the third.
Most sources will tell you you need 0-100 extra calories in the first trimester, 200-300 in the second, and 300-400 in the third. This depends on your activity level, BMI, and other factors like your metabolic rate. You can start with some of the available online calculators, but expect to give yourself some wiggle room and monitor your daily needs / what works for you before committing to a concrete goal. Chances are the generic numbers won’t be perfect for you and gentle trial and error is your best path to finding a healthy eating goal. You may find the average recommendation is too high and you begin gaining weight too quickly. Likewise, you may find the recommendation isn’t enough and you’re too hungry or tired to keep to your goals, in which case your metabolic rate simply requires more.
Step 1 pt B: Reasoning with and taming pregnancy’s insatiable hunger:
Progesterone can effect the release of the chemical that lets your brain know you’re full. This might explain why, even with a tummy that’s bursting and straining after a big meal, your pregnant brain might still be urging you to stuff down one more bite even when there is physically no room left in your torso! Overcoming this is hard, but understanding the mechanics of your hunger is the first step. Eating actually raises your metabolism by about 10%, so without the handy response in your brain to tell your your’e full, you metabolism is bumped up and eating (if you’re unlucky like me,) might actually make you feel hungrier than before your meal began, sending you fast down a road of constant snacking and cravings throughout the entire day. It gives whole new meaning to the expression “l’appétit vient en mangeant”!
Your two greatest weapons against this frustrating phenomenon are exercise and knowing the your caloric needs / appropriate portion sizes. During this very weird, alternate dimension-like time of your life, you’ll be stunned to discover that when craving a snack you don’t need or fighting nagging sensations of hunger when you’re full, hopping on a stationary bike, going for a walk, or getting some exercise can actually kill or at least mitigate the cravings. Get up and bustle about your kitchen! One of my favorite activities to distract from hunger is cooking and baking for later meals. In fact, my love of cooking came into full bloom while I was pregnant!
For portion sizes, weigh your ingredients if you have to, calculate the calories, and fill your plate or bowl with what you need to meet those goals in a way that’s as nutrient dense as possible. Fiber, Protein, and healthy fat rich foods will fill you up much more effectively than carbohydrates and starches. Put left overs and dangerous grabbable snacks, seconds, or extras away before you start eating.
My insatiable hunger didn’t let up for a moment for the entire 9 months and keeping within my range was, admittedly, the biggest challenge of the entire pregnancy. By the third trimester I would go into a meal frustrated, knowing that no matter how much I ate I’d always still be hungry afterwords. Even though I could feel that I was physically full, my brain perpetually wanted more. Throughout the day I was pestered every 10 minutes with a little voice: “Snack now?” “How about a handful of nuts?” “There are cheesy crackers in the pantry!” Or worse, “Indulge in chocolate, the kid needs it!” “You need ice cream RIGHT NOW of there will be hell to pay!” “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, break out that French camembert in the fridge and EAT THE WHOLE THING”.
I explained the insatiable hunger to my mother once as though someone were holding a fresh baked slice of chocolate cake, gooey and fragrant, only inches away from my nose. My mouth was perpetually salivating. It’s uncomfortable, but on the bright side I’ve become a food and cooking fanatic, leading to all sorts of cooking and recipe leveling up that I never would have enjoyed without the constant need to be doing something food related. Distracting yourself from hunger by learning clean and lean recipes and cooking is a great way to indulge in a food obsession in a healthy way. Stock pile healthy recipes and keep active by bustling about in the kitchen!
Step 1 pt C: Get nerdy about nutrients
While your prenatal vitamin will cover a lot of bases, you shouldn’t lean on it entirely for your micronutrient requirements. Vitamins and minerals found in food are often more readily absorbed by your body than those found in supplements, so setting daily goals for your intake will help you fill up your plate with what’s best for both you and your growing tiny human. You can also attack some of pregnancy’s less friendly symptoms by either seeking out certain things while evading others.
Folic Acid is of course considered the #1 essential in your first trimester. Deemed necessary for the heathy development of you’re baby’s neural tube, you’ll want to be sure you’re getting the recommended 600-800 μg daily dose to avoid neural tube defects and the dreaded spina bifida. If your prenatal vitamin has less than 800, aim to back it it up with daily leafy green vegetables, like spinach, broccoli, and lettuce, fruits like lemons, bananas, and melons, and fortified and enriched products, like some breads, pastas, and cereals. I made a habit of making a side salad of mixed greens with nearly every meal and added a few folate rich recipes to my repertoire, such as asparagus or broccoli pasta.
DHA and omega 3 fatty acids are big contributors to baby’s brain development. The bottom line: Don’t deny yourself that tuna sandwich. I was desperately craving a tuna sandwich for the first half of my pregnancy, but my husband forbade it due to the higher levels of mercury in larger fish. Alas, for months my favorite big predators of the sea from my island childhood such as Ono, Ahi, and Mahi Mahi were off the menu. Luckily, I discovered late in pregnancy that the levels of mercury in large fish are found to have none or a negligible negative effect on the development of the fetus vs the overwhelming positive effect of DHA on brain development.
In a large observational study of 2000 mothers in 2016, blood from the women’s umbilical cords was assessed for levels of mercury, a contaminant linked to neurotoxic effects, and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid. After birth, the women’s children were tested on scales for cognitive development and a scale measuring symptoms indicative of autistic spectrum disorder, both when they were 14 months old and five years old.
Eating more servings of seafood a week was associated with increases in cognitive scores and decreases in symptoms of autistic spectrum in the children. Eating 600 grams of total fish per week—about three to four servings—was linked to a 2.8 point increase in IQ score. To my great elation, the protective effect was particularly strong for large fatty fish like tuna, which have some of the highest levels of DHA—and mercury—among fish types. The umbilical cord blood test revealed higher amounts of mercury and DHA for people who ate more large fatty fish, but researchers didn’t see negative associations with mercury and the child’s neurodevelopment. If your prenatal vitamin doesn’t include DHA, consider adding a fish oil supplement to your daily routine and add a healthy serving of fish your dinner menu each week.
Though a powerful ally in fending off leg cramps, I never heard anyone lauding potassium as a pregnancy must-have. Cramping in the legs is a weirdly agonizing and common phenomenon during pregnancy, though What to Expect While Expecting basically just tells you to deal with it and offers no explanation. Muscle cramps are often due to a lack of common minerals, notably potassium, which is rarely included in prenatal vitamins. I therefore ate a banana every single morning, without fail,and never experienced any cramping during pregnancy.
Finally, in your third trimester, make a point of seeking out calcium. You’ll notice your multivitamin likely only covers up to 10% of your recommended daily intake. Crazy, right? Calcium isn’t easily absorbed in the body when taken in a dietary supplement, so you’ll need to be thinking about it in your daily meals. Baby’s bones are hardening in these last few months, and calcium not readily available to them in your diet will be taken instead from your bones, meaning a greater risk of osteoporosis later in life. Keep your bones and baby’s in good working order by seeking out calcium rich and fortified foods. I got my fix from fortified almond milk, (45% daily intake in 1 glass!) but milk, cheese, yogurt, and non dairy choices like sesame seeds or poppy seeds, beans and lentils, sardines and salmon, and some leafy greens, are good options as well.
Step 2: Regular Exercise though cardio and strengthening
As frustrating as it was, that insatiable hunger was my only ill throughout the second and third trimesters of pregnancy was a small miracle I attribute entirely to regular exercise and strengthening my body along with its growth, so that my muscles, bones and joints adapted and were able to support the extra weight, fluid, and hormonal increase.
Strengthening your body for pregnancy is essential for your and baby’s health. Prepare for your later, heavier months like preparing for battle, a marathon, or olympic feat. Increasing your heart rate and circulation with regular cardio can help mitigate or even prevent swollen extremities, stretch marks, and mood swings while weight training will strengthen the muscles you need to carry around baby and then, astonishingly, push the little miracle out and help you recover afterwords. Even if you have a natural aversion to exercise and athleticism, (me me me!) the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and temporary discomfort of sweating to some pop music once a day. Both forms of exercise, cardio and strength, are equally important factors in staying healthy and strong throughout your pregnancy, so don’t neglect either.
Though I’d planned to eat properly, I’d stubbornly sublimated the need to exercise until approximately twelve weeks, when I was gripped by a pinched sciatic nerve from the weight of the growing placenta on my tail bone. I gingerly struggled into a chiropractor’s office for 4 different sessions, but the painful (and brief) manipulations done to my back and pelvis showed no improvement.
Finally, in desperation, I limped over to our stationary bike and heaved myself into the seat. The cycling motion, I noticed immediately, didn’t pinch my nerve. After 20 minutes of cycling and gently warming the muscles in my thighs and calves, I noticed the pain was lessoned. I climbed on the bike the next day and the next, each time improving my pain and mobility, until at last I took up gym classes and was able to adapt a daily routine. I quickly began taking weights and cardio classes Monday – Thursday and devoted myself to 30 minutes of cycling on our stationary bike at home on the off days. My goal was to raise my heart rate and break a sweat for at least 30 minutes every day of the week.
The bottom line:
With these two essential steps conquered, exercise and tracking my nutritional needs, by the end of my pregnancy I didn’t feel “pregnant” in my daily activities. I still pushed around the lawn mower, cooked, stretched, ran, jumped, did household chores, I even played Bad Minton with my husband in the yard several days before our son was born. When baby did show up, my body moved mountains and I become the first woman on my side of the family to manage a vaginal birth in generations. Birth is a awe inspiring, super human act and you’re officially a hero for getting through it no matter how you prepare or how baby comes into the world, but facing it in the best possible health will help carry you though the difficult and magical months ahead. Rise to the challenge and kick butt!