By Emily Wade Adams, CNC for Natal-Nutrition.com
Chips, crackers, doughnuts, bagels, candy … these easy-to-grab comfort foods are a quick way to relieve pregnancy’s hunger pangs. But caving to your cravings isn’t necessarily healthy for your baby. Processed foods in particular are some of the most unhealthy and potentially dangerous options for moms-to-be, because they make your baby more likely to have health problems. According to Dr. Weston A. Price, your baby is at risk for health problems even if you ate processed foods before conception, even if it wasn’t you but the baby’s father who ate them, and even if you ate well but the foods you consumed were grown in depleted soil (Singer, 2004).
What are processed foods, and why are they so bad for you? They’re food products that have been manipulated, refined, enriched and/or preserved – in short, almost anything that has been changed from its natural state. Most packaged foods are processed. If you read a label and don’t recognize the ingredients, it’s likely that food has been processed. Items in the center of the grocery store tend to be processed. Generally, foods are processed to lengthen their shelf life and are packaged in a way that’s convenient for us to grab on the go.
Through the creation and preservation of these products, however, much of the nutrition from the original food sources is lost – not to mention taste! Hence, flavor enhancers like salt may be added to make these foods palatable. In addition, it’s typical for fiber to be refined away. Sometimes manufacturers enrich processed foods with synthetic vitamins and minerals to add nutrition back into these foods, but it’s controversial as to whether these synthetic versions are as absorbable as the nutrients found in whole foods.
Therefore, when you’re eating processed foods, it’s hard to get all the vitamins and minerals that you and your baby need. Inadequate nutrition, especially early in the pregnancy, may impair fetal brain development, endocrine functioning, organ development and the energy metabolism of your child (Singer, 2004).
“What you eat during your pregnancy has a great impact on the long-term health prospects of your child,” says Ph.D. Francine Juhasz. Impaired fetal brain development could present as autism or ADHD. Abnormal energy metabolism may result in a child that becomes overweight or obese.
But even if you eat whole foods like vegetables, you may still be at risk. Conventional farming practices strip soil of its minerals, resulting in produce that may lack nutrient density.
So how can you satisfy your cravings while simultaneously supporting your baby’s optimal development? Here are four tips:
1. Eat the whole food, not the processed food product. Try cooked whole grains instead of bread or an apple instead of apple pie. You can even try spaghetti squash instead of spaghetti! Whole foods are packed full of the nutrients your baby needs to develop.
2. Try organic instead of conventionally-grown foods. Prenatal exposure to pesticides is linked to low IQ and organic foods can be more nutrient-dense. Pastured organic meat, for example, contains higher levels of healthy anti-inflammatory compounds and less fat than conventional meat – not to mention fewer hormones, antibiotics, and nitrates (Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005). If you’re worried about the costs of buying organic, prioritize: the Environmental Working Group has a great resource called the “Dirty Dozen” outlining the 12 produce items that are most important to buy organic. Focus on those as well as organic or pastured meats and dairy products.
3. Snack! Eating frequently reduces the risk that you’ll get hungry and binge on unhealthy food choices. Preparation is key – always have a healthy snack on hand like trail mix or a hard-boiled egg. A snack that includes protein and healthy fats will keep you satisfied for hours.
4. Choose healthy replacements for your most pressing cravings. Sometimes cravings indicate the need for a certain nutrient. For example, cravings for ice cream can signal the need for protein, fat, or calcium (Hudson, 2023). Or, cravings can just be linked to the texture or taste of a certain comfort food. Dying for mac & cheese? Try beans instead of pasta or nutritional yeast instead of cheese. Got a sweet tooth? Grab a piece of fruit or some raisins. Your body and your baby will thank you!
Singer, K. (2004). The Garden of Fertility. Food and Reproductive Health (166). New York: Penguin.
Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Designing a Healthy Diet. New York: Atria.
Hudson, T. (2023). Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Pregnancy. McGraw Hill: New York.