Most women shift into overdrive to eat healthy during pregnancy, however they may accomplish the most good before they even get pregnant. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and care around chemicals impacts metabolic health at conception improves everything.
Women with poor metabolic health have more trouble getting pregnant and staying pregnant. Poor maternal health at conception is linked with an infant’s greater risk of congenital defects and disease at birth, but also greater risk of diabetes, obesity and poor health for babies later in life. Research suggests poor health at conception is one reason today’s youngest are known as Generation Rx.
The solution is cleaning up diet and lifestyle before pregnancy, and the sooner the better. Even though there is no single right way to eat, every woman can tap into healthful habits. In the US, almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned, so for women open to having children there is no time like the present to figure out a way to eat well and improve metabolic health. Here are few recommendations to start:
BASIC RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVED NUTRITION STATUS
- Eat a balance of mostly whole foods. Some women will benefit from more protein and fat and others with more carbohydrate, but whole foods offer the greatest nutrient density and contribute to a stable source of energy through the day
- During pregnancy the body can gain fat weight easier than usual and is known as an insulin resistant state. For this reason, many women find that they don’t tolerate refined sugar and starch the same as when they are not pregnant. Even if the refined carbs don’t pack on the pounds it is a good idea to keep them in check. Sugars tend to feed the wrong kind of gut microbes (see below) Before you get pregnant try weaning yourself off the sweet stuff (and excessive refined starchy foods as well).
- If you gain weight quickly, choose carbohydrate rich food carefully. Women who easily gain weight , especially in their belly, may benefit by including more produce than starchier carbohydrates. Eating more carbohydrate than you can handle–even healthy whole grains– drives inflammation and increases poor metabolic health. Finding the right balance for you is key.
- Honor your hunger and satiety. Anytime is a good time to align food intake with your needs, but especially before you conceive. Hormones of pregnancy trigger profound metabolic changes in the body and energy needs vary over the course of pregnancy. Growing your baby without excessive body fat weight gain will be more successful if you already know how to eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are satisfied.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A HEALTHIER MICROBES AND A HEALTHIER GUT
We have evolved with microbes and research suggests a healthy microbiome supports a healthy pregnancy. Increasingly we are aware that mothers share their microbes with their babies throughout pregnancy, during delivery, and with breastfeeding. The healthier the mother’s microbiome, the better for baby
- Include adequate plant foods in your diet. Fiber found in plant foods feeds healthy microbes in the gut and thereby increase short chain fatty acids. These acids enhance and influence integrity of the gut wall. Most women will benefit from a wide range of whole grains, beans and legumes as well as fruits and vegetables. Some women may not tolerate as much starch, even from healthy food sources.
- Eat a mix of raw and cooked foods. Heating foods above 112 degrees F destroys good bacteria. As the American consumer relies more on processed and convenient prepared foods, we also decrease our exposure to healthy microbes.
- Experiment with including fermented foods into your diet. Fermented foods provide a wide range of healthy microbes, far more diverse and numerous than commercial probiotic supplements.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVED METABOLIC FUNCTION
Ideally every young woman learns to eat well and maintain strong metabolic health throughout her life, including the childbearing years. Dietary guidelines preoccupied with weight loss in overweight women miss the mark by pretending that body size is a good measure of health status.
Too often thinner women don’t get the nutritional support they need while heavier women who already lead a healthful lifestyle don’t get acknowledged for the efforts they make. For this reason, all women need to eat well before pregnancy regardless of body size. Try to:
- Include physical activity every day. When we move we use both glucose and fat more effectively for fuel. The body becomes more insulin sensitive with physical movement. Frequency tends to trump intensity and/or duration. When the body burns fuel more effectively, both blood sugar and insulin level moderate. Elevated levels of sugar and insulin in the blood during pregnancy are linked to increased risk of birth defects and many diseases including obesity.
- Reduce exposure to toxins and endocrine disruptors. The American Academy of Pediatrics already recommends that pregnancy women preferentially consume organic or otherwise more sustainably grown food, decrease exposure to toxic chemicals in cooking and food storage containers, as well as cosmetics and cleaning products.
Every woman looking to get pregnant deserves the opportunity to improve her metabolic health. Not only are metabolically healthy women more fertile, they enjoy fewer complications during pregnancy, produce healthier babies, and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing they are doing what they can to support their child’s future metabolic health, too.
Women looking for additional support can access referrals to dietitians who specialize in maternal and infant health on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. The Find a Dietitian search function can be filtered for geographic location and specific area of concern.