As any newly pregnant woman will tell you, once people find out you are expecting, everything you do, wear and eat suddenly becomes everyone’s business. Nowhere is that more true than in China, where as a pregnant mom I was admonished for wearing lipstick, eating curry and choosing to exercise until the 36th week of my pregnancy.
Along with that comes the belief that moms need a lot of extra food to support the growth of the fetus. In many cultures, expectant mothers are encouraged to eat liberally. The more the better, right?
For a start, just ten percent of a fetus’ growth happens during the first half of pregnancy. The remaining 90 percent happens during the second half. In the first half, the fetus is literally modeling itself by creating the human anatomy in its most basic outline. This is the time when the brain is formed, fingers outlined and a rudimentary heart starts to pump for the first time.
A pregnant woman’s real nutritional needs at this stage are nutrients that support, regulate and protect this process. (In fact, both parents ought to have those nutrients in their bodies long before egg meets sperm.) Most women have heard about the importance of folic acid for this stage, but other nutrients, such as iron, zinc and the B vitamins, are also very important. Simply taking a daily prenatal vitamin is not enough to make up for a habit of snacking on french fries and Doritos.
During the second half of pregnancy, some women take this physical growth stage as license to indulge in foods they might normally deny themselves. This is fine if the indulgence is an extra helping of milk and cheese, both of which are packed with nutrients for fetal bone and muscle growth. However, cake and ice cream after every meal is simply not beneficial, and can very quickly lead to excess weight gain for the mother as well as other potential complications. At this stage, the developing baby needs a different set of nutrients than what most indulgence foods provide.
The fact is that moms-to-be don’t need additional food so much as they need an increase in nutrient density. The secret is to understand the difference between nutrient density and calorie density. Foods that are packed with growth-sustaining and protective nutrients are not necessarily high in calories. Conversely, foods high in calories are in most cases not packed with essential nutrients.
For example, in the second trimester most women of normal weight only require an additional 400 calories per day. That works out to a couple of boiled eggs, 1 small apple and a glass of milk. A small bag of potato chips and eight Hershey’s Kisses can give you the same 400 calories, but not the brain and body-building protein, fiber, calcium, vitamins, minerals and essential fats a fetus needs.
So, moms-to-be, stand your ground the next time you’re told to eat 12 baozi for lunch simply because there is another bun in the oven.
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.