Eating for two starts while you’re one
If you’re planning for a baby, the best thing you can do for you and your baby is eat well in the time before you conceive. There’s a reason for that. Your infant will draw on stored nutrients in your body, and you want to provide an optimal diet that includes all the nutrients he or she will need, especially:
- Folate (B9) – Important for pregnant women since it supports the growth of the baby, is essential for the baby’s developing brain and prevents neurological birth defects. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate included in vitamin supplements, but folate is available in many foods, especially the superfoods listed below.
- Iron – Transports oxygen throughout the body and has a role in creating energy from nutrients.
- Calcium – Is important for bone development and performs many other functions.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Promote brain health during pregnancy and early life, fight inflammation and autoimmune disorders, are good for skin, and offer many other health benefits.
- Fiber – New research on the human microbiome (the microbial environment in our gut that impacts all aspects of our health) demonstrates the importance of fiber in maintaining the health of our digestive tract. Since constipation is a common problem for pregnant women, it’s a must in your diet.
How can you be certain your diet includes everything your baby needs and keeps you healthy at the same time? The old wisdom applies: eat a varied balanced diet.
But today, we know the best varied diet is one that is also nutrient dense. A nutrient dense diet focuses on foods that offer the maximum nutrients for the minimum calories. What kinds of foods will a nutrient dense diet include? What are its “superfoods?” Let’s talk first about what it doesn’t include: refined carbohydrates, added sugars, most commercially processed foods, trans fats, overdoses of saturated fats, juices (better to have a piece of fruit and water when you’re thirsty) and soft drinks are a few of the items to avoid.
As for superfoods, these are the kinds of foods you want to include as often as you can in your daily diet. Just remember: eat a varied diet that emphasizes plant food, preferably whole plant foods rather than commercially processed food products. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Your balanced diet should include lots of fruits and veggies, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, monounsaturated oils like extra virgin olive oil, mushrooms — and if you eat eggs, dairy and/or meat, a modest amount of those items, maybe 20% of your diet.
What are superfoods?
When you eat the nutrient dense way, superfoods are those foods that contain maximum nutrition in minimum calories (of course you need to eat the recommended calories for your height and build — and for two when you’re pregnant — but on average in the U.S. we eat 3641 calories a day, so too few isn’t usually an issue. Nutrient dense super stars are greens, like kale and spinach, chard and collards.
Superfoods might also have some special quality, like excellent fats or an especially large amount of a certain nutrient that current nutritional research demonstrates is important for particular aspects of health.
Here are great examples of superfoods focused on many things your new baby can also enjoy to receive all the same great benefits. Tree nuts are not included in the list since they can cause allergic reactions for some, but if you’re good to go on them, almonds and walnuts are good choices, featuring potassium, magnesium, vitamins E and A (antioxidants) and essential fatty acids, especially the omega-3s in walnuts:
- Avocado – Rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids that help boost brain development, the fat composition of avocados is actually somewhat similar to breast milk. Avocados feature B-vitamins (that regulate many body functions, keeping us running like well-oiled machines), vitamins K (for bones) and C (for the immune system), as well as important antioxidants and minerals.
- Berries – Berries average nearly 10 times more antioxidants than other fruits and vegetables. This means they protect against cancer, boost the immune system, and protect the liver and brain. They reduce and repair damage resulting from oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Broccoli – Broccoli features folate, fiber, calcium (for good bone development and maintenance), iron, potassium, and vitamins C, K, and A. Research suggests it’s cancer-preventive.
- Butternut Squash – Butternut and other winter squashes are packed with vitamins A and C, important for eye health and immune function. Squash is loaded with fiber. Relatively low in calories, it has a sweet flavor and creamy texture.
- Chia and other seeds – Chia provide a massive amount of nutrients with few calories, just 137/ounce (2 TB). They serve up a powerful punch of omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber as well as calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, important for bone health — and niacin, iron, zinc and other important minerals.
- Grains, whole – An important source of fiber, whole grains also have a healthy amount of protein and B vitamins, especially B-6, important to pregnant and breastfeeding women to help their babies’ brains develop normally.
- Kale or other greens – Like broccoli, greens are loaded with folate, fiber, potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamins C, K, and A. Antioxidants support immune system health and digestion, and other nutrients are important for bones.
- Lentils – Beans and other legumes pack lots of lean protein and fiber as well as folate, iron and other minerals. Smaller than other beans, they cook more quickly and create a pleasing mush easy for both baby and mom to eat. As a bonus, lentils are very inexpensive and go a long way.
- Sweet Potato – Supplying a whopping 214% of the daily vitamin A requirement and more than half the vitamin C requirement, sweet potatoes are also an important source of fiber and B vitamins, especially vitamin B-6, important for babies’ brain development.
- Tomato – Tomatoes contain all four carotinoids, powerful anti-oxidants. One of them is lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage. It promotes eye health, helps keep bones strong, and is good for your brain. When breastfeeding moms eat tomato products, it increases the concentration of lycopene in their breast milk. Cooked tomatoes are best for absorbing all the benefits of lycopene.
How will I have the time for DIY super meals?
You might be thinking, how will I have time to make my own food? Here are two tips for fast, healthy food preparation that will take you less time than getting dressed, packing the diaper bag, loading into the car and going to pick up something. These tips require investing in two pieces of equipment, but you’ll soon say you’d give up your whole kitchen for those two items:
- A high-powered blender like VitaMix makes amazing smoothies and soups. Any one of the super foods listed (well, maybe not lentils) can go into smoothies along with some banana for creaminess, frozen pineapple for sweetness and ice for thickness. Get creative! Even raw winter squash adds a creamy texture, sweet flavor and gorgeous yellow color (if you substitute cabbage for the greens) that shouts, “antioxidants!”
- Here’s where the lentils come in. A multifunction pressure cooker like Instant Pot invites you to throw everything into it, pressure cook for a few minutes, and pop out delicious, nutritious soups and stews, including whole grain additions like barley or wheat berries or rice. Dried beans take a little longer to cook but not much — and lentils cook up in no time. You can saute carrots and onions and celery in the Instant Pot first, then switch to pressure for the lentils, canned petite diced tomatoes, water and seasonings and serve up a lentil soup without missing a beat.
So enjoy the adventure in healthy eating your baby can inspire. Bring on the superfoods!!
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