In today’s world, there's a lot of "diets" and ways of eating that claim to be the healthiest. Low fat, low carb, vegan, vegetarian, keto or paleo are just to name a few... Maybe you yourself have tried some or all of these ways of eating and now that you’re pregnant, you might be wondering is one way of eating better than the other?
Pregnancy is an important time where you need more than the usual amount of nutrients to nourish your baby’s growing body. For this reason, I don’t like to prescribe a certain way of eating other than a wholefood diet: real, natural food.
Eating real, natural food is the best thing you can do for you and your baby while you’re pregnant. If you focus on eating real food you’ll be getting more of the nutrients your developing baby needs without worrying about the empty calories that come from processed foods, which contribute towards unhealthy levels of weight gain during pregnancy.
What is real food?
Real food is food that's as close to its natural state as possible. Potatoes compared to potato chips. Whole-wheat toast compared to a bagel. Corn on the cob compared to a packet of Doritos.
A good question to ask yourself is how much time did this food spend in a factory?
An apple = no time at all
Apple sauce = a little time to get processed into sauce and packaged
Apple pie = a longer time especially for the crust to be made and added
Brown rice = little time to get washed and packaged
White rice = a little longer for bran to be stripped and packaged
Rice crisps = a longer time for the bran to be stripped and then converted into crisps and then packaged
Choosing foods that've spent no time in a factory is always the best option. Choosing foods that’ve spent only a small amount of time in a factory is the next best thing. I believe that if you can eat real foods most of the time throughout your pregnancy, you don’t have to worry about calorie counting or restrictions. These foods have real nutrients that serve a purpose.
During my first pregnancy, I was hungry all of the time. Some days, I would have two lunches just to get me through to dinner and most days, I’d have to eat something every 2-3 hours. However, since I was eating real food when I was hungry, I didn’t worry about counting calories. The only time I had to be mindful about portion size was when I was indulging in a craving that wasn’t “real food” (for me, it was the occasional ice-cream or slice or two of pizza!).
In a nutshell, pregnancy is not a time to deny your hunger but it’s not a time to go crazy on food that doesn’t deliver nutrients to your body or your baby. Does that mean you can’t occasionally have a chocolate bar or a dessert? Not at all. Sometimes, it’s just better for your emotional health to go on and treat yourself. But a treat should be exactly that… a treat. Not a replacement for a wholesome nutritious meal. And when it comes to sweets and treats, portion control is everything.
So how can you making choosing real food easier?
Here are five tips that worked for me in both my pregnancies that helped me choose real food as often I could.
1. Meal prep
If you can take the time to prepare your meals, do it. Cook ahead if you can so you have meals ready for when your hunger strikes. For me, I would cook a big batch of brown rice pasta with lots of veggies and grilled chicken and I would take servings of it to my office where I could have a serving of it as my “3pm snack” when I was hungry. This kept me full and helped me avoid the usual snack foods like chips, chocolate and candy. In my opinion, having a second serving of brown rice pasta with grilled chicken and veggies is very different to having a bag of chips, a muffin or a chocolate bar.
2. Look for the least ingredients – or better yet, no ingredient list at all
If you’re on the go and need a quick snack, the healthiest options will always be food that comes without an ingredient list: fruit, nuts, seeds and hard-boiled eggs are just to name a few... If they’re not available, then foods that have as few ingredients as possible, are the next best thing. For example, an energy bar with less than five ingredients is more nutritional than one with a long list of ingredients you can't pronounce. Likewise, unsweetened yoghurt or salted potato chips with 3-4 ingredients are better for you than their counterparts with a long list of ingredients.
3. Avoid anything artificial
Avoid foods that have colors, preservatives and artificial sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup. Any food with these things added to them are a huge red flag to me. These foods have spent a long time being processed in a factory and they’re as far from natural, real food as possible. Research has confirmed that artificial sweeteners have a toxic effect on our bodies and that high-fructose corn syrup triggers weight gain. The hard thing with artificial sweeteners is that food manufacturers are sneaky by hiding sweeteners in everything from ketchup to crackers so always read your ingredient lists.
4. Don’t have junk food in your home or in your office
If it’s not there, the likelihood of you eating junk food is a lot less than if it was within reach. This is especially important when you’re pregnant and hungry most of the time. I’ve learnt this the hard way! If I crave junk, I have to really make an effort to go to the store and get it. Occasionally, I would satisfy a craving for hot chocolate or French fries and go out to indulge, but because I don’t have sweets or junk at home, if I’m hungry I have to eat what I have available: nuts, fruits, dried fruits such as dates and figs which are great for satisfying a sweet tooth… so are pre-made cacao balls that you can keep in the fridge or freezer for later.
5. Don’t get too hungry between meals
I find myself thinking about sweets or junk food when I haven’t had a good meal beforehand. To feel full and satisfied, I need high-quality protein at each meal or snack, otherwise I’m hungry and craving junk or processed food an hour later. I try to include a serve of protein in each meal or snack in the form of eggs, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, tofu, beans, lentils or lean meat. A high-protein breakfast always helps me stay on track for the day so I’ll most likely have eggs in the morning, avocado toast or nut butter on whole-grain bread. If you’re more of an oatmeal or granola girl in the morning, try making your own granola so it has more protein and fiber than the store-bought varieties. I love this grain-free granola by Minimalist Baker which uses lots of walnuts, almonds and pecans so it's nutrient-rich without any refined sugars.