My son and I were making peanut butter and banana toasties yesterday when I was transported back to my pregnancy days. For me peanut butter is synonymous with the highs and lows of pregnancy! Pregnancy is a wonderful and exciting time for most women and, minus the night cramps, I loved every minute of my pregnancies. But it is also a period of rapid alteration in a woman’s physiology, with new physical symptoms including nausea, extreme tiredness, constipation to deal with and ever-changing emotions (happiness to anxiety to anger to excitement to worry to happiness..... Get the jist?) We all know taking good physical care of ourselves, including plenty of rest and sleep and eating healthy is key but easier said than done when struggling with said symptoms and continuing the juggling act that is life.
Being a dietitian I knew the importance of healthy eating, the increased requirements for specific nutrients such as vitamin D etc. But I was also dealing with sleepness nights, incessant toileting, inability to get through a day without tears and not forgetting round-the-clock hunger. At times there was little head space to deal with anything else and food became purely a source of energy and not necessarily nourishment (like I had originally planned).
What did I do? I turned to peanut butter! PB and banana on Ryvita was my staple lunch – quick, easy, healthy, cheap and I could keep the ingredients in my work drawer (and go back for an cheeky spoonful of peanut butter mid-afternoon). At one point it was on my supper menu too when the nausea subsided only to be replaced with extreme tiredness.
Alongside my jar of peanut butter were prawn cocktail crisps (and lots of them). These were my lifesaver in the early days when morning sickness ruled. I craved salt and crisps were the only thing i could stomach. AND this is where nutrition guidelines can be difficult to digest when pregnant. At a time when the quality of your diet is important both for you and your growing baby, your pregnancy hormones are driving these food cravings, tiredness, sickness and nausea and an apple just won’t cut it. AND ITS OK!
So here are my top tips to help you deal with some of the unpleasant side effects of pregnancy whilst also trying to maximise your nutritional intake where possible.
Regular meals and snacks
Regular meals are a must during pregnancy for a number of reasons including keeping your energy levels topped up to avoid low blood sugar levels which can cause dizziness and nausea. If you are struggling with 3 main meals an alternative might be little and often e.g. smaller meals and snacks every 3 hours that can still be nutritious. Smaller meals can also help with indigestion and heartburn
Simple snacks include died fruit and nuts, glass of milk or a milky coffee (limit to 2 cups of caffeinated coffee per day), plain crackers with peanut butter, hummus or mashed avocado, chopped fruit and yogurt, dry breakfast cereal or nut based cereal bars. And whilst I can’t recommend crisps as a regular snack I can reassure you that its ok to have them if the saltiness helps with sickness and the carbohydrate gives you some energy to help you get through your day. Everything in moderation remember!
Don’t persecute processed foods!
Processed foods always get a bad rap in the media. Whilst many processed foods do contain more salt, sugar and fat; there are also many processed foods that are healthy and will make your life easier when you just can’t face cooking. Good examples include pre-cooked rice/quinoa packets, tinned fish such as tinned mackerel or tuna, breakfast cereals, tinned and frozen fruit/vegetables, frozen breaded fish or chicken, oatcakes, hummous and of course peanut butter.
The following is a list of really simple go-to meals when your energy levels have gone on strike:
Tinned mackerel, pasta and frozen vegetables
Jkt potato with hummous, tuna and sweetcorn, baked beans and cheese
Ready prepared rice packet with frozen vegetables and leftover chicken or tinned chickpeas and a sprinkling of seeds
Frittata/omelette with salad veg and potato or chips
Roasted vegetables, hummous and pitta bread
Eggs and avocado on toast
Glucose is needed by our brain and muscles for energy. The glycaemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrate foods based on the rate at which they are broken down into glucose and used as energy. Foods with a high GI will give you that much needed “energy boost”; BUT this will quickly be followed by an energy slump… Not great if you already feel you are running on empty.
Low GI carbohydrates release their energy slowly so they are better for refueling your body and brain (I remember the baby brain…). Try to include low GI carbohydrates in your diet where you can e.g. add beans and chickpeas to your salad, use jumbo oats instead of quick-cook oats for breakfast, use brown rice or pearl barley instead of white rice, snack on mixed nuts instead of crisps, use oats in your crumble and try tahini or nut butter to thicken sauces instead of high GI cornflour.
Pucker up for protein
Protein is needed for cell growth and it is known to keep you feeling full for longer. Aim to eat protein every day and if you are getting hungry between meals ensure you have it at every meal and with snacks e.g. mixed nuts and dried fruit (a good combination of protein and carbohydrate)
Sources of protein include pulses and beans such as chickpeas and lentils, fish, eggs, meat (but avoid liver due to high vitamin A content), poultry, quinoa, tofu, quorn and nuts.
Fluids and fibre
Up to 38% women are thought to experience constipation during their pregnancy (due in part to increased progesterone, which may slow down food leaving your gut). Low fluid intake can exacerbate constipation so make sure you drink plenty of fluids. If your diet is low in fibre here are some simple ideas to boost it (with increased fluids):
1) Add fruit (fresh, frozen, dried or stewed) to your breakfast e.g. warm porridge with stewed prunes. Or hungry at night before bed? Try a slice of toast, peanut butter and banana (trust me you’ll love it!
2) Add more pulses to your meals e.g. add pearl barley to a stew or soup, cannellini beans to your salad or simply add a few handfuls of red lentils to your Bolognese mix
3) Choose a high fibre breakfast cereal (Oats, bran or wholegrain cereal such as Weetabix) or 50:50 e.g. cornflakes with a shredded wheat.
4) Use brown rice or pasta instead of white
NB: The color of your urine indicates whether you're getting enough fluids: It should be clear or pale yellow. If it's dark yellow, that's a sign you need to drink more.
Morning sickness and London underground do not go together! Most mornings during my pregnancy I would walk over an hour to work (anything to avoid the squashed sardines feeling and the variety of “odours"). On a positive it meant I could indulge in a chocolate croissant after my weekly team meeting!
Exercise can alleviate many common side effects of pregnancy including reducing back pain, improving circulation thus helping with constipation, varicose veins and leg cramps. It is also known to improve sleep, mood and energy levels and of course can minimize weight gain.
So where possible try to get out and about. A simple walk at lunchtime, taking the stairs instead of the lift or a gentle swim will all help.
NB. Check with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise regimen.
There are two nutrients that all pregnant women should take as a supplement: folic acid and vitamin D so get stocked up! Speak to your pharmacist for more information.
I wish you a very happy and healthy pregnancy and hope some of the above helps. Sorry if you don’t like peanut butter or are allergic to nuts…. I told you it was my staple food!