21 Weeks Pregnant: Beyond-The-Basics Nutrition

November 10 – November 16: 21 Weeks 0 Days – 21 Weeks 6 Days.

This week, I had my second group prenatal session, and they gave us a neat handout with actual size drawings of the baby at various stages of pregnancy. I didn’t realize how big the baby is already! The Babycenter My Pregnancy Today app told me that she was the length of a carrot, but I couldn’t really conceptualize what that meant until I saw this picture.

Baby's actual size

The baby’s actual size during 19-22 weeks.

I’m not really sure why fruits and veggies are the comparison items of choice for developing babies. Maybe it’s to remind us to eat healthily during pregnancy. I’ve been trying! This week, I made an autumn veggie soup that a pregnant friend, Rose, posted on Facebook. When we ate it as leftovers, Richard augmented it with some slices of turkey bacon, and it was even tastier.

Winter Veggie Soup

Autumn Veggie Soup. Ingredients: Kale, Carrots,  Butternut squash, Zucchini, Yellow zucchini, 1 large yellow onion, 3 cloves garlic, Fresh diced tomatoes, 1/2 lemon, 1 cup chickpeas, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 16 ounce low salt chicken broth. Season with Allspice & Cayenne pepper.

“Unhealthy” things you get to indulge in during pregnancy

Obviously fruits and veggies are healthy, but there are a few things that are normally no-no’s or in-moderation’s that you can indulge in during pregnancy. Here are a few not-so-guilty pleasures that the midwife and facilitator of my group prenatal session recommended we eat:

  • Eggs. Usually the advice is to take it easy on cholesterol-heavy eggs, but they’re packed with omega threes and protein, which are essential for pregnant ladies.
  • Cheese. Before I got pregnant, Richard and I had nearly cut cheese out of our diet. Since I’ve been pregnant, I eat calcium- and protein-rich cottage cheese, mozzarella, and feta on nearly a daily basis. It’s going to be hard going back when I’m done breastfeeding! One caution they give is avoid unpasteurized cheeses, so I check the labels whenever I buy anything gourmet, but it seems like you have to go out of your way to find unpasteurized cheese in the USA.
  • Bacon. Richard and I switched from regular bacon to turkey bacon a while back, and we rarely even ate that any more before I was pregnant. Although you’re not supposed to gain a ton of excessive weight while pregnant, restricting salt and fat isn’t recommended. Lately I’ve been buying turkey bacon weekly—yum. However, in my group prenatal session, they told us to get nitrate/ite-free bacon, and I can’t find turkey bacon that fits the bill (there are only a couple brands available). Guess I’m going to have to switch to the real thing—doctor’s orders!
  • Red meat. Mama needs her iron. I’ve been getting my iron more from leafy greens than meat though. As pregnancy progresses, my digestive system becomes more and more compressed and the last thing I want to try to do is digest a T-bone steak.

Not all salmon is created equal

Mercury in fish

In my group prenatal session, they gave us a list of the best and worst fish for mercury contamination. They also gave us a list that focused specifically on sushi, which was kind of weird considering we’re not supposed to have raw fish. Thanks for rubbing it in! (Click to enlarge).

Knowledge about mercury contamination in seafood is pretty mainstream now, and any health nut knows salmon is the fish to eat for high DHA (a form of omega three fatty acid that’s essential for the baby’s brain development) and low mercury (a teratogen that can cause neurological problems and developmental delays in the baby). However, I’ve been still been avoiding salmon while pregnant because it still has some mercury in it and is also contaminated with PCB’s (a chemical can affect the baby’s brain development), and I’ve been taking a DHA supplement instead.

My confidence in my supplements was already shaken after I’d read that the absorption of DHA from supplements isn’t as good as from fish, and that some prenatal supplements contain lead (another teratogen that can impair neurological development). Also, my midwife recommended I stop taking the supplement during my third trimester as it may increase the risk of hemorrhage (the word “hemorrhage” is one of the few things that scare me about childbirth). Then, I read this in Fit Pregnancy Magazine:

Eat Fish

“Seafood-eating moms give birth to children with IQs five points higher than the spawn of fish-skippers, thanks to fish’s hefty dose of brain-boosting omega-3’s, NIH experts say. If you’re foregoing water-dwellers because of mercury concerns, know that the risk for most fish is practically nil: The maximum harm small amounts of the  metal could cause is a 0.01-point drag on your babe’s IQ points (risks go up for high-mercury fish…). So, stock up on salmon for your baby genius’ sake!” (Click to enlarge).

I don’t normally make my decisions based on magazine articles with uncited sources, but I asked my midwife, and she agreed: the benefits of eating low-mercury fish are worth the risk. So, I did some research to make sure I was getting the absolute most benefit for my risk, and here are the personal guidelines I’ve decided to follow:

  • Avoid farmed salmon (often Atlantic salmon). Because the feed for farmed salmon contains other fish, their contamination levels are higher (the higher on the food chain an animal is, the more concentrated its contamination).
  • Avoid chinook (king) and sockeye salmon. These were my two go-to choices for salmon before I was pregnant, but, because these types of salmon live longer, they are more contaminated with PCB’s.
  • Choose wild Alaskan salmon (chum, pink or coho). These salmon are the least contaminated. I’m planning to eat one of these types of salmon once a week.

The “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen”

Many pesticides are teratogens (can cause birth defects), so if there’s a time to buy produce organic it’s now. For the sake of my bank account, my shortcut is: if you eat its skin (or it doesn’t have skin) definitely buy it organic (e.g. apples, cucumbers, kale), if you peel it’s skin off it’s okay to buy conventional (e.g. bananas, oranges, grapefruits). We got a list of the 12 most important foods to buy organic, and the 15 with the lowest pesticide residue, and I was interested to see some of these fruits and veggies violated my rule! I’m going to have to keep this in my wallet to reference at the grocery store.

Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

The dirty dozen (buy these organic) and clean fifteen (lowest in pesticides). (Click to enlarge).

Beans please, hold the BPA

I think the midwife and prenatal group facilitator must have both been vegetarians, because they accented how healthy beans are during pregnancy. But seriously, beans tend to be high in protein, fiber, iron, folate, calcium, and zinc—all important for pregnancy. Even though I’ve been lax about avoiding BPA during pregnancy (a chemical that may disrupt fetal development that leeches into canned foods), I asked about BPA contamination in canned beans. Beans take planning to make from scratch (you either have to soak them overnight or cook them forever), so I rarely do it. The midwife had a great suggestion: cook one large batch of beans from scatch, and freeze them in usable portions (in BPA-free containers, if possible). That’s my goal for next week!

Decaf coffee doesn’t have to be bathed in chemicals

The evidence about how caffeine affects pregnancy is equivocal, but I’ve never been that into drinking coffee (and when I did, I’d often get it decaf), so I avoiding most caffeine is an easy sacrifice for me. Have you ever wished you could unknow something someone told you? Months before I was pregnant, a work acquaintance mentioned offhand that decaffeinated coffee is full of chemicals (on another occasion, she also ruined gel manicures for me, sheesh). Although I haven’t found any evidence that the small amount of chemical residue in decaf coffee is harmful to adults or developing babies, I didn’t feel great about drinking it (the FDA tends to have lower standards about what should go in my body than I do). When I got pregnant I ditched my weekly treat of a Decaf Mint Mojito Iced Coffee from Philz. I really missed it! Then I found out that Philz carries Swiss Water decaf coffee; it’s coffee that’s decaffeinated through osmosis (water) rather than with chemicals! Now a Swiss Water Decaf Mint Mojito Iced Coffee is my go-to indulgence when I need a boost.

3 Weeks Pregnant: Pre-Conception Nutrition

July 6 – July 12 : 3 Weeks 0 Days – 3 Weeks 6 Days.

I have an irregular cycle (one of the reasons I was sure I was going to be infertile), so it takes me a while to worry about being “late.” By the second week of July it had been six weeks since the beginning of my cycle, so I took pregnancy test—just to check. It was negative, which makes sense since pregnancy tests don’t accurately detect pregnancy until nearly two weeks after conception (which is called “4 weeks pregnant”). I assumed I’d simply skipped a period due to the stress of closing on our new home over the last two weeks.

Wedding at Yosemite

Even though I’d made no indication Richard and I had even talked about trying, months earlier, my mom insisted I get this flowy dress for the wedding in case I ended up pregnant by then. Little did I know I was!

That weekend my two-week old embryo got some fresh mountain air when Richard and I drove up to Yosemite National Park for our friends’ elegant outdoor wedding. I felt oddly emotional while there, and I remember telling Richard I was definitely PMS’ing and that my period would start in the next week.

One of my New Years resolutions last year was to cultivate space in my heart and life for a child. Richard and I had talked about having kids, but I hadn’t really let that intention fully integrate. As part of that process, I read the memoir Having Faith by Sandra Steingraber, which is an amazing read about the impact of environmental factors on prenatal development. One of the points the author drives home is that many fish are contaminated with heavy metals, industrial chemicals, and pesticides, which can be extremely harmful to the embryo and fetus. These substances are arguably more harmful than alcohol, but for some reason booze gets all the attention. Since heavy metals take six months to leave the body, I chose to start immediately shifting my seafood consumption to fish known to be the least contaminated, such as salmon. Needless to say, when Richard and I selected our wedding reception meals months before the Yosemite wedding, I diligently selected “vegetarian” instead of “fish.” When we got our plates at the reception dinner, although my lentil cakes were delicious, I eyed Richard’s lemon-crusted salmon enviously—I’m going to assume it was farmed salmon to make myself feel better.

That weekend, I was more tempted than I’ve been in a long time to have a flute of champagne and a splash of dessert wine—especially since I’d just tested negative for pregnancy—but I settled for lemonade. I stopped drinking alcohol a year or two ago for several reasons, including the possibility that I might get pregnant. The evidence around exactly how much alcohol is safe during pregnancy is mixed, but if alcohol is going to cause damage, it does its worst early: between three and eight weeks after conception when the embryo is rapidly morphing and organizing into a human shape.

It has always made me nervous how vital and sensitive the early stages of development are, considering that it might take me several weeks to realize I’m pregnant. Another example: a folic acid deficiency during early pregnancy can cause severe neural tube defects.  For that reason, I also started taking prenatal supplements well in advance (well, intermittently anyway).

By the time I found out I was pregnant, I was grateful for the preconception care I’d committed to because I didn’t feel any guilt or worry that I’d exposed my embryo to potential damage. I felt I’d done the best I could with the knowledge I had, and with a diligence that didn’t create a ton of extra stress in my life (e.g. At a sushi restaurant, I would order a roll that contained some tuna if there weren’t enough salmon-only or vegetarian options available, and I never bothered asking if the salmon was wild or farmed).

Although I believe I made the best choices for me, I’m not about to stand up behind a podium to prescribe my way to all pregnant mamas (or pre-pregnant mamas). Maybe I should have done less: I just read that most prenatal vitamins have trace amounts of lead in them, so maybe starting them so early has done more harm than good considering I already have a pretty balanced diet. It’s impossible to know. Maybe I could have done more: I didn’t make a concerted effort to preemptively avoid BPA, caffeine, salmon sashimi, or cats. Pregnancy is hard enough—especially with how equivocal all the research is around it—there’s no room for us to be making each other feel bad because we choose different paths.  Each woman makes the perfect decisions that make the most sense to her.