Currently, I am in the process of getting my body baby-ready. Hold the party poppers. We are not actively trying to conceive just yet and nor will we be trying until around mid-2013. Organised much?? You may think that this is an absurd amount of time to “prepare” for pregnancy. You may feel that preparing at all is unnecessary. I beg to differ. In a big way. The way I see it, failing to prepare your body for pregnancy is like failing to prepare a nursery for the baby to come home to –you just wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) do it. Or, as my dad always told me:
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”
Thanks Daddyo! So wise! He also taught me how to fish, but that’s beside the point. Or is it……??
Traditional cultures, such as the beautiful Maasai of Tanzania ensured women were consuming an optimal diet to nourish their body at least 6 months prior to conception.
The Maasai are extremely resilient, not to mention stunning (and can jump like you wouldn’t believe), and still to this day give birth to healthy babies….in the “wild”….not in a hospital….not booking an elective caesarean the moment they find out they are pregnant. This point is relevant, I swear, as when we talk about preparing our bodies for pregnancy and birth, it’s not just about nutrition.
My interest in this area is both personal, as I mentioned above, and professional. All too often I encounter couples who experience difficulties in falling pregnant. It’s heart-breaking. Interesting facts on fertility:
- One in six couples is infertile, with an equal likelihood that the issue lies with either sex (That’s right, this info does not just apply to women. I’m pretty sure you are all aware of how babies are formed and the chances are slim, so you had better hope you have been priming those swimmers for the big race, fellas)
- Fertility problems strike one in three women over 35
So what’s this got to do with nutrition? Surely what we put in our mouths can’t play a role in these statistics. Again, I beg to differ. While I recognise that there are many causes of infertility, including genetics, environment, age etc, diet and physical activity are the easiest factors for us to manipulate, thereby giving us the best chance possible in any given circumstance. At the very least, it will improve your health, and that’s not such a bad thing is it?
OK, getting back to it. So with all of my recent interest in improving fertility, when my friend Soulla Chamberlain mentioned she would be holding a workshop “Growing Healthy Babies Naturally”, I jumped at the opportunity! The first of this 2 part series was last Saturday and provided a wealth of information that I would like to give you an overview on here.
Also, before you get all “what would she know about babies??” which you could probably say about me as I am yet to be a mother, Soulla is the proud mother of 2 gorgeous children, whom she raises wholly on a nutrient-dense traditional wholefoods diet. No, they are not deprived children, far from it in fact. You can read more about what they eat over on her blog. But for now, just be happy with the knowledge that Soulla speaks from the perspective of both a nutrition expert and a mother.
The 2 hour session covered a lot of extremely valuable information, which I will not cover completely here. This will be more of a checklist of “Things you really should do to make the healthiest baby possible”. I encourage you to check out the book/website recommendations if you would like to learn more. So, let’s get to it:
Things you really should do to make the healthiest baby possible
1. Buy a slow-cooker
Kidding. I’m kidding! But if you want to make healthy, delicious, time-saving meals, then you really should get one. However, if you are happy slaving away for hours or if you don’t really give a crap, then carry on as you were.
1. The real #1 – eat nutrient dense foods
Consider for a moment that you are making a cake (grain-free, of course). You are really excited about this cake and you want it to be the best tasting, best looking cake in the world. So obviously, you need the best ingredients possible – none of this shake and bake crap – you want the good stuff. You also need a pretty good oven in order for it to be cooked to perfection.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Now….substitute “baby” for “cake” and “womb” for oven”. Yeah, I’ll admit I’m not the most creative with analogies, but hopefully you get the point. Your baby is 100% made from the nutrients your body supplies to it (by way of the nutrients you ingest, through foods). You are growing a human. This is no sponge cake. This is one of those crazy dessert challenges they put on Masterchef. This is the “snow egg” at Quay:
Now THAT is a masterpiece! And I can tell you, it is the business! Taste sensation! (not very “paleo” though - don't eat it when pregnant!)
So to put it simply, if you are eating good quality, nutrient dense foods then that is what your baby’s structures will be made out of. If you are eating poor quality foods, then same deal applies. What you eat before and during pregnancy determines your child’s long-term health, so best we get it right, don’t you think?
When we look at traditional societies, such as the Maasai of Africa, in the lead up to conception, the women will consume secret fertility foods – foods that are known to be rich sources of vitamins and minerals for optimal health, both for the mother and the baby. These foods are all real, unprocessed foods found in nature and included all, or some of the following:
- Liver from grass-fed animals – if there is one fertility super-food, it would be this. Liver is crucial for reproductive health, being a rich source of iron (consider a mother’s blood volume doubles in pregnancy), folate (especially important for proper development and prevention of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida), vitamin B12 (for central nervous system and red blood cell development), vitamin A (eyesight and prevention of birth defects). Whip up a tasty pate and enjoy with vegetable crudités each week.
- Wild-caught oily fish – such as salmon and tuna, which are the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These long chain fatty acids are absolutely essential to the brain development of the foetus and may also play a role in the prevention of behavioural disorders and post-natal depression. Low levels of omega 3 are also implicated with male infertility. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that consuming flaxseed oil will be enough to get you through. Flaxseed oil is an omega 3 fatty acid which can be converted in the body to the longer chain EPA and DHA, however our capacity to do so is limited, and I would strongly advise consuming pre-formed EPA and DHA in the form of oily fish.
- Grass-fed meat, bones and marrow – if you don’t consume oily fish, meat from grass-fed ruminants is the next best thing in terms of omega 3 fatty acids. They also provide an abundance of other nutrients, such as iron, vitamin B12 and B6, to name a few
- Organic egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens (or ducks, for that matter) – Soulla described egg yolks as “nature’s multi-vitamin”, and I would have to agree. These little babies are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and choline. Choline is important for the developing nervous system and is critical in tooth and brain development, and possibly memory and cognitive function later in life.
- Full-fat, unprocessed dairy from grass-fed cows/goat/sheep – unprocessed butter, cream and even milk from good sources are rich in vitamins A, D and K2 (all important for bone health)
2. Avoid nutrient-poor foods
These are foods that either provide little to no nutritional quality and, in some cases, can even “steal” the nutrition from other foods that are eaten with them, preventing you from reaping the benefits.
- Processed crap – as Soulla so eloquently stated: “If something needs to be advertised, it’s probably not real food”. My general rule is “if it needs an ingredients list, then it is probably not your best bet for nutritional quality”. So what comes under the banner of “processed crap”? Anything with sugar or artificial sweeteners (including agave syrup) – think confectionery, store-bought sauces, soft drinks, fruit juice, tinned fruit and vegetables. Read the label – if sugar is in the top 3 ingredients, don’t buy it. Other processed crap includes takeaway foods, bars of any sort (including most protein bars and “healthy” bars – just eat the real food, people), and most dairy products (yep – they are highly processed and become “dead-food”).
- Grains and legumes – generally in the paleo/primal community we tend to avoid grains and legumes due to the anti-nutrients contained within them. These include things like phytates/phytic acid, which bind to minerals in the gut and prevent their absorption. A good example of when this might occur is if you consume milk and cereal together. While we may think we are getting a good dose of calcium in our brekkie, the amount we actually absorb is inhibited by the phytates in the cereal grains which wrap up the calcium and cause it to be excreted instead.
- Grains also apparently cause the uterus to swell and can prolong labour and should therefore be avoided, especially in trimester 3.
- Another reason to avoid grains is gluten, which is extremely inflammatory on the whole body and can cause many problems, ranging from leaky gut to immune and thyroid problems, which will ultimately have repercussions for your developing baby, and is possibly linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome - a common cause of infertility!
- However, perhaps the best reason to avoid grains and legumes is that they just aren’t as nutritious as other whole food sources (especially those mentioned above). The way I see it, we can only eat so much in one day, so why not make sure we are getting the most bang for our buck?
- Soy – this is a biggy for reproductive health prior to and during pregnancy. Soy contains phytoestrogens which can mimic our own oestrogen (female sex hormone). In a nutshell, soy is damaging to the reproductive health of all involved – mother, father and baby. Consuming soy during pregnancy is more likely to result in genital issues (both function and form), especially for male babies, and could potentially cause early onset puberty for females (I’m talking before the age of 8 – not right!). I could write a whole book on why you shouldn’t have soy EVER, but I won’t because I don’t have space here, and because it has been done fabulously already by Kaayla T Daniel – The Whole Soy Story. Read it!!
- Vegetable oils – these really should go under the “processed crap” heading. Oils such as sunflower, safflower, canola, corn, rice bran and soybean are not, in any way, shape or form, good for our health. They are highly susceptible to damage from heat and light (thanks manufacturers for packaging them in clear plastic and telling us to cook with them!!) which turns them into rancid oils which are extremely detrimental to our health. Instead, cook with coconut oil, lard or tallow and enjoy butter, olive oil, avocado and nut oils cold. And if you are avoiding all of these dodgy foods, don’t worry about cholesterol – it is important for so many functions in the body AND it is the main component of breast milk!
3. Manage stress
Stress causes a myriad of problems, including those related to infertility. My next blog post is going to be on stress, so I won’t elaborate too much here, but what I will say is stress management should definitely be a priority prior to and during pregnancy (and post-birth, if possible??).
4. Avoid environmental toxins, as much as possible
Unfortunately we are exposed to a huge amount of toxins and it is near impossible to avoid them all. However, you could start with the following:
- Get off the oral contraceptive pill. Yes, it’s a toxin – it’s synthetic hormones being pumped into your body. Learn how to use other methods (such as the symptom-thermal method). If you are planning to have a baby, you should start detoxing from the pill at least 4-6 months prior to conception. I would recommend seeing a naturopath to help you out – Anthia Koullouros from Ovvio Organics in Paddington is amazing.
- Try not to use plastics – water bottles, plastic containers etc – get them out of your life and use glass/stainless steel instead.
- Try to use natural skincare products – check out the labels and avoid products with sulphates, parabens, artificial colours, petro-chemicals (propylene glycol) and synthetic fragrances, to name a few.
5. Try to keep at least 3yrs between babies
Pregnancy and breastfeeding is very taxing on the mother. The baby can and will suck out all of the mother’s nutrient stores, which can take time to be replenished substantially enough to provide for baby #2. If you cannot or will not wait that period of time, then you really need to be quite strict with all of the above-mentioned advice. A great book to read about the importance of child spacing is “Deep Nutrition” by Catherine and Luke Shanahan.
Phew!! Soulla and her fabulous guest speakers covered more than this, but I think that will do for now, don’t you agree? Especially considering part 2 of the workshop is this weekend so I will have more to blog about next week!
Great books and websites for more info:
I hope this information has given you some food for thought and I would love to hear your thoughts/questions! It’s good to be back! x