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When I found out I was pregnant, I felt a combination of intense excitement, gratitude, and fear. My mind immediately began evaluating my recent nutrition, lifestyle, and supplement choices — and what I could potentially do better. It hit me that it wasn’t just about me anymore. Optimizing my pregnancy nutrition became a top priority.

My Mindset

I’m not going to lie: When connecting with other mothers-to-be and scanning pregnancy blogs and chat boards, I’ve been a bit thrown off by how flippant our society is toward nutrition during pregnancy. It seems that eating when pregnant is an excuse to indulge in frequent fast food runs, unlimited ice cream, and an increase in nutrient-poor, calorie-dense snack foods. It’s counterproductive to a healthy diet.

The “eating for two” mentality is still surprisingly pervasive as well. I’m about to enter my third trimester, and my baby is estimated to only weigh about a pound a half. I do not need to eat for two — at least not two adults anyway.

When I think back to what I learned in school for dietetics, most of the information taught about pregnancy nutrition revolved around what not to eat: Stay away from deli foods and lunchmeat. No runny eggs. Meat must always be well done. No soft cheese. Avoid sushi.

That thought process is a starting point, but it’s incomplete. Yes, we need to make sure that food is safe and we have common sense practices in place to avoid foodborne illness. But there should be just as much focus on was to eat to support a healthy pregnancy.

At the end of the day, I know my choices now impact my baby’s health not just in utero, but through adulthood. That’s a big responsibility.

First Trimester Caveat

Don’t get me wrong — for a few weeks during my first trimester, I did not stick with my usual and consistent high-protein, produce-rich approach to eating.

The intent was there, but my packed lunches of chopped veggies, hummus, and pulled chicken were often returning home untouched due to a few aversions and bouts of nausea. Shamelessly, I had salt and vinegar chips as a midday meal on more than one occasion. (Although, I did pair it with a shaker cup full of protein powder in an effort to control nausea from periods of low blood sugar.)

Here were my non-negotiables during that first trimester:

  • Despite the near-narcoleptic feelings of drowsiness, I did some form of exercise daily. I can’t imagine how much lower my energy would have been if I skipped that.
  • I refused to deviate from my Foundational Five supplement plan.
  • Every time they sounded palatable, I made sure to include and prioritize meat and fibrous fruits and vegetables.

As my nausea lessened (and I know some women have it way worse), I continued to change my nutrition to better nourish my body and my baby in the best way for me.

Eggs, Eggs, and More Eggs

Most people know that folate is important in pregnancy. Choline, however, is an underappreciated, critical nutrient as well. It’s often grouped in with B vitamins and is important for several metabolic processes, including brain development.

Liver and whole eggs (with the yolk) are amongst the richest sources of choline. Since I didn’t grow up eating liver and it’s not part of my usual rotation, I turned to eggs as a staple food. I already love them, so it wasn’t hard to do.

I easily eat a dozen or more eggs per week, usually three at a time. Their protein and fat content make them perfect for breakfast, and they’re super versatile.

My go-to’s are either eggs fried in butter in a cast-iron skillet with some fruit or veggies on the side, or a batch-cooked egg bake made with spinach, sausage, and sweet potato.

Speaking of Liver

The science-loving side of me knows that liver is an amazing source of key nutrients — particularly those needed in pregnancy. But as I mentioned above, I didn’t grow up eating it, and it doesn’t sound appetizing to me.

In a moment of bravery — and at the risk of sounding unrelatable — I’ll admit that I ordered braunschweiger, a type of sausage that has liver as a component, from a reputable online meat delivery company. It’s mixed with regular beef and spices, and is relatively mild.

So far, I’ve only had it a few times. It’s not great, but a couple of ounces at a time are tolerable when slathered in goat cheese and paired with almond flour crackers. Most of it is still sitting in my freezer, but I’m trying.

Large Portions of Produce

As appetite increases during pregnancy, veggies are a great way to fill up and maximize nutrient intake. Pairing them with healthy fat brings out more flavor, and helps certain nutrients (like vitamin K) to be better absorbed. They’re also full of folate and vitamin C.

Most days of the week, I enjoy a giant salad. It’s usually some variation of leafy greens, chopped herbs, veggies, and an olive oil-based dressing. Here are some recent examples:

  • Spring mix with cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • Spinach salad with sliced strawberries, diced avocado, and pumpkin seeds, made with an olive oil and fresh lemon juice dressing that I sweeten lightly with some stevia
  • Arugula with walnuts, goat cheese, and roasted beets, with a dressing made of one tablespoon each of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and orange juice

To get my cooked veggies in, I have each of the following in my weekly rotation:

  • Riced cauliflower cooked in butter. I usually hit it with a dash of lime juice and mix in chopped fresh cilantro when I’m done — it’s a perfect base for a taco bowl. Sometimes I’ll add lemon, oregano, and parsley instead.
  • Brussels sprouts roasted with nitrate-free bacon
  • Easy creamed spinach. I toss a bag of frozen spinach in a cast-iron skillet and cook it with olive oil, loads of garlic, salt and pepper, and a splash of lemon juice. When it’s close to done, I mix in a few chunks of organic cream cheese, letting any extra liquid cook off. It tastes better than it sounds.
  • Roasted broccoli, sometimes with a squeeze of lemon or some cheddar cheese melted on top

Fermented Foods

Supporting digestive health has always been a top priority of mine. Fermented foods provide a great dose of probiotics to support a balance of healthy bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract. Recent promising research shows that probiotics might also be beneficial for the balance of bacteria in the female reproductive system. The maternal microbiome — especially that on the skin and in the birth canal — is passed to the baby during delivery.

Lately, I’ve been trying to increase my intake of fermented foods. My favorite is full-fat, plain Greek yogurt with some vanilla collagen peptides mixed in. It’s a satisfying snack or dessert, especially when topped with berries. When we grill brats, I’ll add a tablespoon or two of sauerkraut on the side. When I’m needing something salty, I’ll choose a couple of olives. I’ll also frequently use a grater to shred some of a block of aged cheddar over roasted broccoli, salads, or eggs.

Daily Shake

I’ve found that a protein shake daily serves me well as a sweet, satisfying snack. It steadies my energy levels and provides added nutrition when I’m busy or don’t have time to stop, sit down, and eat.

Sometimes it’s fruity, sometimes it serves as a chocolate fix, and sometimes it’s more of a frozen mocha inspiration made with decaf (since I usually have it in the afternoon). But no matter what, I include grass-fed whey, nut butter or chia seeds, and prebiotic fiber. (As pregnancy progresses, constipation is common, so I’ve been hyper-focused on prevention with hydration, fiber, and exercise.)

This was a habit I had before getting pregnant, and I’ve found that now more than ever, it’s a solid, convenient staple for me to rely on to boost my fiber and protein intake.

Seafood

Thyroid health is critical during every stage of life, but especially during pregnancy for the baby’s brain and neurological development. Considering iodine is needed for a well-functioning thyroid, I’ve been including seafood at least two to three days per week.

Using canned salmon or tuna is more budget-friendly when possible.

Some weeks I keep it easy by making a canned salmon salad with an avocado oil-based mayo, a squeeze of Dijon mustard and lemon, and chopped scallions and dill. (I’m choosing to limit tuna due to the potential mercury content.) I’ve also experimented with making salmon patties served with a quick lemon-garlic aioli. They’re great hot or cold.

Other days, I’ll have grilled shrimp skewers with mango salsa. An easy dinner could sometimes include a baked, crusted whitefish, or a pan-fried salmon fillet. I love them with olive oil, lemon, and capers.

Collagen-Rich Foods

Collagen is a protein found in connective tissue that is rich in glycine, an important amino acid during pregnancy, especially as the baby is forming and the mother’s tissues and skin are stretching to accommodate. Bone-in meats, cuts with the skin, and tougher cuts of meat (such as in stews or slow cooked) are great sources of glycine.

I’ve found that I’ve rarely been eating boneless, skinless chicken breast or ground turkey lately. Instead, I’ve been making slow cooker pulled pork and bone-in, skin-on chicken crispy chicken thighs roasted in the oven.

With the weather getting warmer, I’ve replaced stews with collagen protein to get in some extra glycine. I mix it into everything: vanilla collagen in yogurt, plain collagen in marinara sauce, chocolate collagen added to energy bites or protein truffles.

As I head into the final trimester, I know my baby has a lot of growing to do — and my body needs to keep up. Increasing my collagen intake continues to be a priority.

What I’m Not Eating

My nutrition isn’t perfect — I’m human, after all. I always say, what you do most of the time is what matters. Every Saturday, my husband and I each get the flavor-of-the-day cupcake at a local bakery (I choose a gluten-free one). I also enjoy an occasional ice cream cone or side of fries, but it’s certainly not on the regular.

However, I am choosing to avoid the following as much as possible:

  • Artificial sweeteners. For me, I don’t have a reason to consume them — especially since alternatives like stevia and monk fruit are so readily available.
  • Soy and gluten. I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (the most common cause of thyroid issues), and I don’t tolerate either one of them well.
  • Refined, low-fiber grains. I know that as pregnancy continues, blood-sugar issues and the risk of gestational diabetes become more of a concern. Most of my carbohydrates at this point are coming from veggies, some fruit, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. Yes, I’ll occasionally have gluten-free toast or a hamburger bun (it’s what works better for me), but it’s not daily. I try to time it around my workouts to help keep my blood sugar in check, too.
  • Trans fats. While trace amounts of trans fats are naturally occurring, the majority that most of us are consuming come from processed, ready-made foods such as packaged desserts, fast food, and margarine. They have zero health benefits and a laundry list of negatives. If it has “hydrogenated oil” anywhere on the ingredient list, I’m foregoing it.
  • Obvious food safety concerns. For now, I won’t be eating out of a food truck, or at a buffet line, or picnic where food has been sitting out.

What I Had to Eat Yesterday

Below is an example of what I’ve been eating. Obviously, do not take this as a template for yourself — this is what works for me at this point. My doctor is regularly assessing me and checking my blood work, and he’s satisfied with the results.

Always be sure to work with your doctor and a qualified nutrition professional when tailoring your individual plan — especially if you’re pregnant.

Breakfast: Eggs fried in butter, topped with sliced avocado and bagel seasoning, along with a side of berries. I often include a small piece of gluten-free toast if I’m exercising in the morning.

Lunch: Leftover taco bowl made with seasoned grass-fed beef, cilantro-lime cauliflower rice, salsa, and chopped peppers and onions with a few organic corn tortilla chips. I had a small piece of dark chocolate for dessert.

Afternoon snack: A pumpkin pie shake made with grass-fed vanilla whey protein, pumpkin pie spice, chia seeds, canned pumpkin, sunflower seed butter, and coconut milk blended with ice.

Dinner: I started with a large spring mix salad with roasted red peppers, feta, chopped parsley, black olives, and a sprinkle of oregano drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. About an hour later, I had baked salmon (made with olive oil, lemon, and capers), a few spears of sautéed asparagus, and a small baked potato with cinnamon.

Evening: Sliced strawberries on top of full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with some vanilla collagen as a sweet treat.

As far as numbers, my daily average has been between 2,200 to 2,500 calories or so, with a split of about 25 percent protein, 35 percent carbohydrate, and 35 percent fat. Based on my needs, it’s a priority for me to get at least 130 grams of protein daily (often more) and at least 35 grams of fiber. Again, this is what works for me, based on my body composition, blood work, and current exercise and activity levels — so take it in context.

What’s Next?

For now, I’m going to focus on nourishing myself and my baby in an effort to support a continued healthy pregnancy. Plus, I’ll be starting to prepare some freezer meals to have on hand once baby arrives and my priorities inevitably shift.

I know motherhood (and the postpartum stage) is going to bring its own new set of joys, challenges, and circumstances. While I’m passionate about health, fitness, and nutrition, I know it’s important to give myself some grace. It won’t be perfect, but with the right plan, it should be nutrient-dense, sustainable, and realistic.

After all — it’s what I do most of the time that matters.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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