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Food & Health

Starting Right: What to Eat When You’re Hoping to be Expecting

Thinking of having a baby?  It’s a huge, exciting decision. If you’ve never been pregnant before, you may be wondering what to expect. Experienced moms know that the nine months of pregnancy are a sort of a marathon – an exhilarating and sometime challenging time culminating in substantial exertion. Just as you would prepare for a marathon, there are steps that you can take to get ready for pregnancy. These will all increase the odds of having a healthy baby and can help you feel better during the nine months of pregnancy as well.

Here are five positive things you can do for yourself (and your baby-to-be) before you start your pregnancy.

1. Assess your weight and make changes as needed.

Starting pregnancy at a so-called “normal” weight gives your baby an advantage. Babies whose moms are underweight before pregnancy are more likely to have a low birth weight as well as being at risk for problems at birth. Being underweight can also reduce the odds that you’ll get pregnant. Overweight moms are at increased risk of developing gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes is associated with a variety of issues including having a baby that is so large that it must be delivered by C-section.

You can assess your weight before you are pregnant by using this handy tool. If you’re in the “normal” range, you’re in a good place to be pregnant. If you’re underweight or overweight, think about working to gain or lose weight, as appropriate and wait a few months to become pregnant. If you need help with weight control, consult a registered dietitian, ideally one versed in vegan diets.

2. Make sure you’re eating a variety of vegan foods with an emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods.

Pre-pregnancy is a great time to clean up your plate. Eating a variety of foods – beans, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds – makes it more likely that you’re getting the nutrients you need and that will support your baby’s growth. You’ll be a role model for your child for many years. It’s a lot easier to promote fruits and vegetables if your child sees you eating these healthy foods.

In addition to choosing whole, unprocessed foods often, be sure you mix things up. If you usually eat soy products as entrees, try adding some other kinds of beans or seitan. If you take fruit for lunch, eat seasonally – peaches in summer, pears in the fall, strawberries in the spring rather than only eating apples or bananas. Greater variety in your food choices makes it more likely that you’re getting all of the nutrients you need.

3. Start taking a supplement of folic acid and decide if you need to use supplements to insure adequate vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and iodine.

Folic acid is an important vitamin during early pregnancy because of its role in the development of the nervous system. Adequate intakes of folic acid have been linked to a reduced risk of birth defects like spina bifida. Since the baby’s brain and spinal cord begin to form very early in pregnancy, before you may even know you’re pregnant, the CDC and other government agencies recommend that all women who may become pregnant either take a supplement containing 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid or eat cereal fortified with folic acid. Few, if any, vegan cereals are fortified with folic acid, so it’s probably easiest to take a supplement of folic acid or, if you use a multi-vitamin, check to see if it has 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for folic acid.

Vitamin B12 is another vitamin that’s needed for development of the nervous system.  Vegans get vitamin B12 from fortified foods (some brands of soy or other milks, cereals, energy bars, etc) and from supplements.  Be sure that you have a reliable source of vitamin B12 that you use every day before and during pregnancy and when you’re breastfeeding.

Requirements for calcium and vitamin D do not go up in pregnancy.  It’s still important to meet recommendations for these nutrients, either by choosing good food sources or by using a vegan supplement.

Iron needs are quite high in pregnancy because extra iron is needed to make the baby’s blood. If you start pregnancy with adequate amounts of stored iron, there’s less likelihood that you’ll become anemic during pregnancy. You can build up your stores of iron before pregnancy by eating iron-enriched foods (pasta, cereal, bread, some brands of fake meat) and foods high in iron (dried beans, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts). Even with adequate stores of iron, your health care provider may recommend an iron supplement.

Iodine plays an important role in brain development. Iodized salt is an easy way to add iodine to your diet. If you don’t use iodized salt and rarely use sea vegetables (another source of iodine), either choose an iodine supplement or a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement that supplies iodine.

4. Decide on an exercise regimen that you can continue (perhaps with modification) throughout pregnancy.

Exercising during pregnancy can give you a mental and physical boost. If you’re in good shape before you’re pregnant, it’s easier to continue to be active even when you’re carrying around 30 extra pounds. Recommended activities for pregnancy include walking, swimming, biking (perhaps on a stationary bike later in pregnancy), and aerobics.

5. Seek help for any medical or other issues (alcohol, drugs, and tobacco).

If you have a medical condition like celiac disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, talk to your doctor before becoming pregnant. You may need to adjust your medications or make other changes to accommodate your condition and reduce its impact on your and your baby’s health.

Smoking and drinking are bad for babies. If you need help with getting habits like these under control, seek out a professional before you decide to get pregnant.  Get your partner involved as well. There is some evidence that alcohol, tobacco, and drug use can lower male fertility and cause damage to the sperm.

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