Note: This article is NOT intended as medical advice. Always consult your doctor with questions and concerns regarding your pregnancy diet and health conditions.
There are few times in life that emphasize the paramount importance of nutrition more than pregnancy. After all, a mom-to-be is both growing a human(!) while supporting her own body in its highly taxing new role.
Yet despite the overwhelming list of nutrients a pregnant woman should consume (as well as a laundry list of foods to avoid), there is surprisingly little information on what, exactly, a pregnancy diet should look like. That’s because, while there are official guidelines as to nutrient recommendations, how to get these nutrients into your diet is not well addressed. And so, for the nutrition-savvy among us, one would assume that superfoods—the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet—would be the most simple and effective way to achieve a good balance.
But soon after becoming pregnant, I quickly discovered it’s not that simple. While some superfoods are incredibly beneficial during pregnancy, others may have unintended consequences during the critical stages of a baby’s growth (including breast-feeding). So, after discussing all my superfood questions and plans with my doctor, here’s exactly what I decided to include … and what to omit.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE MOST IMPORTANT "SUPERFOOD" OF ALL
While getting nutrients from real foods is usually preferable, pregnancy is not a time to leave oneself vulnerable to deficiencies that can be linked to compromised growth and birth defects. That’s why the most important “superfood” to consume is actually not a superfood at all, but rather a quality prenatal vitamin that helps ensure all baseline nutrient needs are met. It’s important to remember: A prenatal vitamin does not replace the need for a healthy diet, but a healthy diet also does not replace the need for a prenatal vitamin.
That being said, there’s a lot of prenatal vitamins out there ... with a lot of opinions to go with them! Throughout my pregnancy, I took Pregnavie, and plan on continuing it for the next year as I had such great results with it. I love that the formula is fully plant-based and non-GMO, and was especially happy that it contained calcium (which I needed due to a medication I was taking) but not iron (which compromises calcium absorption, and is also very easy to overdo in pregnancy while potentially causing deleterious results). I also loved that Pregnavie is just ONE pill, instead of three like many brands, and it even contains ginger to help quell nausea flare-ups. Does it work? In my case, yes: I’m happy to share that all of my bloodwork came back looking great, even at the end of pregnancy, including hemoglobin (which indicates healthy iron stores), as well as vitamin D and vitamin B12 levels (especially pride-inducing considering my mostly plant-based diet).
WORKING WITH BENEFICIAL SUPERFOODS
The biggest hurdle with taking superfoods during pregnancy is that most of these specialty ingredients lack quality studies that prove their safety during pregnancy. It makes sense … would YOU sign up for a clinical trial to see whether an herb hurt your baby or not? Me neither! But it’s also frustrating for those of us who have a healthy set of superfoods we’ve grown accustomed to using, suddenly not having guidance on what makes the cut. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine that something so great could be “bad” for you or the baby ... but then, who wants to take the risk?
I erred on the side of caution, and incorporated only those nutrient-dense superfoods that are considered simply “generally nutritious,” as opposed to those heralded as “potent and medicinal.” In most cases, I kept superfood quantities on the minimal side, too, and alternated which ones I consumed from day to day. Based on this philosophy, these were my top superfood picks during my pregnancy:
Abundant fresh green vegetables of all kinds, including kale, spinach, lettuce, broccoli etc. Greens are a phenomenal source of many vitamins, but are particularly valuable for their folate content, which is essential for fetal development and can prevent major birth defects. You’ll get an easy thumbs up from the doctor on these superfoods!
Powdered supergreens, like spirulina and moringa. I didn’t use huge amounts of these, but their potent nutrients were a great way to sneak in extra benefits, especially when nausea limited what I wanted to eat. I liked that spirulina and moringa had in fact been studied for pregnancy, including spirulina’s positive effects on malnutrition, and moringa’s blood-building qualities for expectant mothers.
Fresh mushrooms, like shiitake and maitake. Again, I didn’t eat huge amounts of these, but loved their immune-boosting benefits in occasional dishes.
Seaweeds, like nori and dulse. The high mineral content in seaweed can be advantageous for those looking to get extra calcium, magnesium, potassium, and more. Source is important with seaweeds, which can pick up pollutants if grown in compromised waters, so I made sure to choose organic varieties and buy from reputable companies.
Fresh berries, including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and cranberries. Potent in antioxidants and excellent for brain-building, I definitely ate A LOT of berries—they were one of my biggest cravings! In general, most berries appear beneficial during pregnancy, even including some more exotic varieties like acai, goldenberries, as well as mulberries. (See the exceptions in the next section.)
Super seeds like hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. Abundant in protein, omega 3’s, minerals, and fiber, these seeds are amongst the best pregnancy superfoods around due to their stellar nutrition. I put them on or in at least one meal a day.
Chocolate/cacao. For a treat rich in minerals like magnesium, I liked to enjoy a bit of dark chocolate or a cacao treat throughout my pregnancy. Not only did it satisfy a sweet tooth, but its flavonoid content has been shown to improve blood flow, which benefits the growth and development of the baby!
Matcha and green tea. While caffeine is something that is advised to be used in limited quantities during pregnancy, I found that an occasional cup of matcha was the perfect pick-me-up on days that I felt especially fatigued. At about 32mg caffeine per cup (using 1 teaspoon of powder), matcha only has around one third of the caffeine content of coffee … but you’ll still want to keep that number in check as most physicians advise no more than 200mg of caffeine a day during pregnancy.
AVOIDING SUPERFOODS DURING PREGNANCY & BREASTFEEDING
A combination of a few concerning studies, as well as an overwhelming decree of “we don’t know” from medical experts, led me to avoid most other superfoods. Keep in mind that some of the varieties below have had conflicting evidence on whether they have negative effects…or are actually beneficial! Personally, I just didn’t want to take a chance. So while there are many specific varieties that aren’t listed here, these are some of the general superfoods I usually use on a regular basis, but actively avoided during pregnancy.
Goji berries. These normally exceptional berries contain a high supply of betaine, which is thought to possibly contribute to uterine contractions and even miscarriage in early pregnancy, although the research on this is slim. Goji berries also contain high amounts of selenium, which if consumed in excess can cause birth defects. As a result, abstaining from consuming goji berries is sometimes advised during pregnancy…especially in large quantities.
Maca. Due to maca’s powerful hormonal regulation, it is usually best to avoid this super-root during pregnancy and allow your body to manage its changing hormones as needed.
Medicinal mushrooms. Many medicinal mushrooms act as immune-modulators – a quality which is extremely beneficial during everyday life, but can be detrimental during pregnancy, when the immune system shifts and purposefully reduces its function to protect the baby.
Most herbal concentrates and extractions. Unless under the supervision of a health practitioner, it is generally not advised to take concentrated forms of most herbs and natural remedies. For example, while using turmeric in cooking can be a gentle anti-inflammatory agent, taking the spice in large amounts or using a curcumin supplement may increase the risk of premature birth and miscarriage. I hit the pause button on all my favorite natural nootropics (such as bacopa and ashwagandha), all varieties of medicinal herbs (like elderberries and holy basil), as well as any superfood powders or formulas that included them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Pregnancy is a beautiful time to be in touch with your body and practice uncompromised self-care as you tend to the life growing inside of you; and most of us want to do what’s best for that little life. To that end, some may choose to incorporate powerful, nutrient-dense ingredients whenever possible, while others may want to lower fetal risks every way they can, opting for a more “basic” diet overall. Both outlooks and preferences are valid, but every body is a little different. So whatever your inclination, it is always best to talk it over with your physician.
Thank you Vegetology for sponsoring this post.