Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Mama Bar.
When Aarthy Longino was pregnant with her first child, she started questioning her food choices. What nutrients did she and her baby need?
As she balanced the demands of her Seattle-area tech job, she turned to the internet for answers and tried to sift through the overwhelming amount of pregnancy-related nutrition advice.
“For me, it was about wanting to do the best I could throughout my pregnancy,” says Longino, who later went on to create Mama Bar, a nutrition bar designed to support the increased nutritional needs of pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding people.
Struggling to navigate all the rules and restrictions surrounding prenatal and postpartum nutrition is a common experience in early pregnancy and beyond, notes Mama Bar cofounder Amy Kovner, M.S., CN, LMHC, a Certified Nutritionist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Even though many people find out they’re pregnant early in their pregnancy, they often don’t see a health-care provider until they’re eight to 10 weeks along. Without a trusted source of information, those first few weeks can be stressful. At the same time, they may also be struggling with nausea and morning sickness, experiences that may generate even more questions about nutrition needs.
“Expectant parents are going to the internet because they want to know what they need and how to get that easily,” says Kovner. “Savvy prospective parents deserve easier access to information and convenient solutions when it comes to supporting pregnancy and postpartum nutrition.”
Nutritional demands can vary
In her nutrition and counseling practice, Kovner has heard countless stories of woman being questioned about their dietary decisions during their pregnancy, from eating a wedge of brie to ordering coffee-flavored gelato.
“I’ve seen many women who are worried about how the food choices they make will impact their babies. This anxiety can lead to eliminating many foods during pregnancy, which can result in restricting important nutrients for a healthy pregnancy,” says Kovner.
Focusing on perfectionism is easy to do, especially when social media brims with countless success stories. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that there is a path to pregnancy perfection. Yet Kovner cautions that striving for that perfection can lead to detrimental mental health impacts, such as ongoing mood struggles during pregnancy and postpartum.
“Pregnant women should know they don’t have to be perfect,” says Kovner.
General nutrition guidance for pregnancy and postpartum
Kovner tries to offer clear guidance on the most vital dietary needs and food safety strategies during pregnancy. In response to so much unsolicited advice and recommendations, she advises clients to focus on the big picture. For example, here are a few of her tips for expecting moms:
- Eat a variety of whole foods. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, meats and eggs provide the most bang for your buck in terms of nutrient density.
- Prioritize Omega-3 essential fatty acids. There is plentiful research supporting the benefits of fatty acids for baby’s brain development. Fish oil and other supplements are also showing promising results in improving postpartum mood disorders.
- There’s no need to cut out all seafood. Fresh salmon is one of the best fish to eat during pregnancy due to its low concentration of mercury and high concentration of important fatty acids.
- Protein needs are a lot higher during pregnancy. Protein can come from a variety of sources, such as meats, fish, eggs, nuts and Mama Bar!
- Take reasonable steps to be mindful of food safety, but don’t stress out too much. That means thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables, cooking meats well and avoiding foods that have been sitting out for hours. Be selective where you purchase your prepared foods. An informed understanding of which food-borne bacteria could impact pregnancy health — and the risks of contracting them — is helpful in creating peace of mind.
Postpartum nutrition matters, too
Nutrition needs are also important after childbirth, a time when many moms can already be in a nutritionally depleted state from pregnancy and delivery. Kovner points out that they are also likely sleep-deprived, focused on caring for their newborn and therefore may find it difficult to prioritize their own needs.
In these first few days and weeks, food choices often revolve around convenience. That’s why it’s helpful to plan before the delivery. This could mean stocking the freezer full of meals that can be easily reheated, or preparing a snack stash near the nursing chair. Full water bottles might be conveniently positioned throughout the house.
New moms need plentiful energy for both breastfeeding and healing from the birth. But, with the focus on the baby, postpartum parents too often forget their own nutritional needs. During this time, sufficient servings of protein and Omega-3 essential fatty acids continue to be important, as is adequate hydration.
“The postpartum time is when I see lots of moms who are tempted to diet or are feeling pressure to lose weight, but this is actually the most nutritionally demanding time in a woman’s life. It is an important time to focus on nourishment and eating enough to replete nutritional stores, repair and heal from childbirth, and produce milk to feed baby. Things I see when moms are not getting enough food are a dip in milk supply, increased fatigue, exhaustion and mood disorders,” says Kovner.
Focusing on providing healthy nutrients goes a long way in countering the cultural narrative around physically “bouncing back” and the pressure for moms to look like they didn’t just have a baby. A more accurate — and affirming — message is that it’s normal to feel physically different, says Kovner.
That message resonated for Longino, now a mom of three who struggled with feelings of low self-esteem during postpartum stages, due to societal pressures of postpartum recovery.
“Everywhere I looked, woman seemed like they were bouncing back,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Am I alone in feeling like I need more time and support to recover and thrive?’”
Looking back, Longino wishes she had focused her attention on nourishment in those postpartum months. Many new mothers she met shared similar stories, acknowledging the pressure placed on women in the postpartum phase. Kovner sees the same in her practice.
“We need to change the conversation about how we can put moms first, even as they’re putting baby first,” says Longino. “Nutrition education and support for moms is a critical aspect of that and the core mission behind Mama Bar.”