In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Emma Bartley tries to steer clear of the doughnuts while working out what she should and shouldn't be eating
It’s funny writing this in a column that began about my constant half-hearted efforts to lose weight, but pregnancy has really transformed my relationship with my body. It’s not that I don’t care that my boobs are sagging, or worry that a large portion of my six-month bump is actually fat. But feeling that it’s in the process of building, from scratch, another human being – like some amazing 3D printer – I’ve grown to respect rather than despise it.
Naturally, I also want to do all I can to help it with its nine-month job, and the most obvious way to do that is by eating well. But with a huge amount of complex and even conflicting advice out there, trying to figure out what to eat (or not eat) when pregnant is almost impossible.
Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat soft cheese when pregnant, that any kind of raw animal product is probably off limits, and that you can’t drink. That’s the official advice - but how and why officials came to those decisions often isn’t clear. The big fear for pregnant women is that you could get listeriosis, which can harm the baby, but I read one article pointing out that there had been only two outbreaks of listeriosis in Britain in two decades. Maybe that’s because pregnant women avoid blue cheese like the plague. Or maybe – as my food scientist dad pointed out – it’s because listeria turns up very, very rarely in food.
The main risk as regards to food poisoning is that you become dehydrated, which could cause a miscarriage in the early stages of a pregnancy. So I’ve chosen to avoid what I considered to be high-risk foods (oysters, mussels, pate from a caterer I didn’t know), but am more than happy to tuck into Itsu sushi for lunch.
Trying to figure out what foods you SHOULD be eating is significantly more difficult, however. From the start of my pregnancy I’ve craved sugary foods and carbohydrates and have often given in to these urges, but the exercise book I’ve been reading (FitMama, we’ll come back to this another time) has put the fear of God into me by saying that the more sugar you eat, the larger and heavier your baby will be at the birth. “Ouch!” she adds, helpfully.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting seems to assume that you ate the diet of a particularly unhealthy university student before you got pregnant, and offers such helpful suggestions as “Instead of before-dinner crisps, try before-dinner edamame beans”. But I never ate crisps! And where the heck am I supposed to find edamame beans? It offers a long and detailed list of the nutrients that you should be getting in pregnancy, along with some foods that are rich in those nutrients. I devoured the list (and many of the foods on it) eagerly during the early months of my pregnancy, but the whole thing is so complicated that you can’t possibly build a nine-month daily diet from it.
Then there are random flashes of advice. One of the central points I’d picked up was that iron deficiency was a common issue, and green leafy vegetables are a good way to get iron. Cue massive spinach consumption by me. Then at my 16-week appointment with the midwife, I happened to see a notice on the wall suggesting that spinach is not helpful for iron deficiency, since it contains a substance that prevents the body from absorbing it.
By the time I speak to nutrition Kate Cook, who as The Nutrition Coach teaches courses for women who are a pregnant or trying to become pregnant, I have a very long list of questions. Is it worth eating spinach? Nuts: friend or foe? How many sesame seeds would you have to eat to get the benefit of any B vitamins? Almost none of them, however, end up being asked.
“Women are very used to being on diets, where it’s all about what you should and shouldn’t be eating,” says Kate. “It’s no wonder, with all the information they get about food in pregnancy, that they end up confused. But nutrition in pregnancy is a lot simpler than it looks.”
Great! I say. So… what are the top five foods for pregnant women? “It’s much more helpful to think about this holistically, rather than separating each individual food out and asking, ‘Is this good or bad?’” says Kate. “I would encourage you to keep your blood sugar balanced to maintain a hormone balance, following a low-GI type diet, but not even as complicated as that.”
We continue in this vein for a while, me telling Kate that I’ve reduced my caffeine intake to two government-sanctioned cups of tea a day; her telling me that I’d really have to go some to drink enough to harm my baby. Me saying I’ve had a bit of a cold and is there anything I can eat; her asking if I’ve been under stress (yes, masses, at work) – that’s probably the problem. Me asking if there’s some biological reason why, every afternoon at around 4pm, I fixate on jam doughnuts; her saying it’s probably psychological – knowing that if sugar makes me fat, I can blame the pregnancy. It’s disappointing: I wanted there to be a definitive plan, a little formula to follow, a shortlist of superfoods.
But Kate’s measured advice, which is essentially to eat a varied diet, prepare meals yourself using the best-quality ingredients and not get stressed out, makes sense. The fact is, as with weight loss, there is no clever cheat’s way to achieve a healthy pregnancy and baby. “We’ve lost a lot of instinct on this,” says Kate. “But you know what to do.”
Kate Cook is the author of An Unfit Mother (eBook available for £4.99, HarperCollins).