The first trimester is a fragile time in a pregnant woman’s life where she feels particularly vulnerable and ill— day in, day out. Her embryo is requiring the highest quality nutrients mom can provide so that it can form its basic foundation as a human life. It’s during the first trimester that an embryo is forming its spinal cord, its brain, its heart, lungs and stomach organs, blood vessels, and skeletal structure. This means Mom should consume copious amounts of essential fatty acids like Omega-3s, quality plant-based proteins and calcium, and plenty of extra fiber as mom’s body and digestive system downshift to a slower metabolism.
I happened to get pregnant over the same weekend that I got hired to work for a nutritionist— a nutritionist who has four teenage children. Fewer bosses could be more sympthatic to the changes I experienced during those first months! And although she wasn’t giving me direct nutritional advice, I did become enlightened to a different way about thinking about food: by looking at the actual nutritional content of each fruit, vegetable, grain, or protein that I ingested, I could make smarter decisions about every meal.
The hospital did provide reasonable nutritional guidelines for what was safe to eat (and which foods to avoid), and it did highlight some foods that I should focus on for optimal health for the baby. But as I looked around the internet for foods to manage my morning sickness, and as I spoke to other women who’d already passed this stage of their pregnancy at least once, it became clear to me that so few women actually knew how to “eat for two,” (hint: its about quality, and lotsof small quantities).
Challenging the Bad Advice
The most common advice I received was to manage my nausea by eating more bread. Whether saltine crackers or sandwich bread, this piece of poor nutritional advice came up again and again. 99% of the breads and crackers available in American markets offer negative nutritional value, in that they actually deplete nutrients from your body, being made up of wheat-sugar compounds. This is why so many people have developed a gluten sensitivity, because the bread they consume is actually harmful to the human body.
Morning sickness tends to worsen when we’re hungry and undernourished. This is why so many women get caught in a cycle of poor eating during their first trimester— they’re not feeling well, so they eat something light on the stomach, like saltines. But saltines— negative in nutritional content— will create a drop in blood sugar shortly after they’ve begun digesting, making Mom feel worse. So mom either runs to the bathroom to dry heave, or, she grabs something else convenient, and too often, under-nourishing. So the cycle continues.
Quality and Lots of Small Quantities!
The best piece of advice really is to eat as often as possible during the first trimester, in small, highly nutritious quantities. This means buying a lot of fresh fruit and veggies to snack on throughout the day.
Thankfully, this is where working for a nutritionist came in handy. I began to look at which foods provided the most nutrients, so that I could make smarter decisions for when I was most in need. Not only would eating right keep my nausea at bay, but it would deliver essential nutrients to the growing embryo inside me, at a time when it was most vulnerable.
Ferocious Morning Hunger
Managing my morning sickness came down to managing my hunger, which was especially difficult when I was waking frequently throughout the night, needing something effortless and convenient. My ferocious hunger usually got me out of bed at 3:00am. I imagine this is when most women would reach for a saltine by their bedside (common internet advice), but I was needing something refreshing, and balancing. I turned to cereal with extra almond milk: Nature’s Path Organic Pumpkin Seed + Flax Granola contains sprouted grains, flaxseed (enriched with Omega-3s, and tons of fiber), and pumpkin seeds (providing plant-based proteins). A cup of this cereal with extra almond milk become my ritual in the middle of the night, filling my body with quality grains, fiber and protein, easing my hunger and allowing me to drift back into sleep before the sun rose.
Usually by day break I was hungry again, rising with the sun and straight to the kitchen. To get my day started, I reached for a slice of Ezekiel Sprouted Whole Grain Wheat Breadand a whole avocado. If I was feeling fancy, I’d add a few slices of tomato and 1 fried egg. This quick meal satisfied my hunger pains while delivering Omega-3s, protein, and high quality fiber.
I’d snack on this while preparing my lunch for the day, and also, my third breakfast: a small bowl of steel cut oatmeal, enriched with flaxseed and chia seeds, to start my day off with as much fiber and other nutrients as possible.
Check out my recipe for My Fiber-licious BIG for Breakfast Oatmeal Recipe, perfect for eating throughout your pregnancy and beyond!
Finally, I’d be out the door, on my way to work. I was often hungry again when I arrived. Thankfully— having been awake since the break of dawn— I had packed myself enough snacks and small meals to eat throughout my entire day at work. It also helped to plan ahead with meal prep the night before, if I had the energy.
This started with plain Greek yogurt and blueberries, delivering calcium and powerful antioxidants. I’d follow that with a hard-boiled egg, providing a healthy dose of protein. I had a piece of fruit, or melon balls, which always felt especially cleansing. Then, I’d eat a chickpea salad with cucumber and tomatoes, offering protein, fiber, and vitamins. Or I’d eat raw celery, carrots, bell pepper, or broccoli with hummus, for fiber, vitamins, and calcium and more plant-based protein.
I’d follow that with a prepared wrap with beets, red cabbage, chickpeas and kale, available at Trader Joe’s, while delivering all kinds of essential vitamins, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants and fiber. If I was still hungry, I had a small cup of apple sauce, or mashed carrots, or leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.
All the while, I was drinking plain water, ginger tea, rose water, or lavender tea, to stay as hydrated as possible.
Does it sound yet like I was eating for two? Absolutely! And yet, during my first trimester, I lost 3 pounds!
Dinner was the most difficult meal for me to manage during my first trimester. Usually, once home from work, I immediately retreated to the couch and either curled into the fetal position, or fell asleep until my husband came home. He almost always comes home starving, as he has taken on a new ritual of fasting several days each week. Being that he is our main breadwinner, and I love to cook, I have gladly taken on the traditional wifely role of having dinner ready for him to dive into when he arrives home— but because during my first trimester I was sunk into the couch with fatigue and nausea, this wasn’t happening quite as much. On the days when I couldn’t rally, he cooked a nutritious meal of broccoli or brussel sprouts with some kind of animal protein. On the days that I could shuffle into the kitchen, I made soup.
Once again, working for a nutritionist came in handy, especially one who wrote the book Power Souping. This book is full of easy-to-follow nutritious recipes that provide both substance and sustenance, exactly what my fragile stomach and growing baby needed. I took cues from her nutritional guidance and built soups around hearty vegetables like cauliflower, beets, and butternut squash. I often threw in more beans: chickpeas, black beans, white cannelloni beans, as well as whole grains, cous cous, or wild rice.
I began making mashed carrots— which pair wonderfully with just about any animal protein— and heaving sides of more vegetables: green beans, brussel sprouts, broccoli, and sauteed kale or dandelion greens, filling every plate with more and more vegetables.
So-Called Cheat Days
When I was sick of cooking, we’d go toour favorite Thai restaurantfor tom yum soup, plates of vegetables, and a delicious fried rockfish— high in Omega-3s, low in mercury. Still nutritious, I felt like royalty having someone else cook for me while I guzzled water and sat half-curled, half-dozing in the booth next to my husband.
Of course there were a few days in between where I didn’t eat well at all, and I relied on junk food to get me by. Starbucks, In’n Out, Dominos, even Panda Express all debuted into my diet at some point during my first trimester. Sometimes, after weeks of eating mostly plant-based proteins, I would crave a hamburger, and together with my husband we’d hit up the best burger joints Los Angeles has to offer.
Sometimes, as a reward for all of my healthy feasting, my husband and I would visit our favorite dessert spots: Salt & Straw Ice Cream, or the famous Milk Bar, and indulge on sugar-packed heaven. His mom also showered us in cookies and cake whenever we came to visit.
Obviously, I was receiving negative nutritional value during these binges, but because my default diet was stacked with highly nutritious foods, I could feel less guilty about the damage I may have been causing my embryo. No body is perfect— the point is to set a strong, healthy foundation for your developing child during its most fragile and pertinent weeks in utero.
We Can Control What We Eat
We can’t really control the outcome of our first trimester— the risk of miscarriage or birth defects is ever-looming over each and every mother during this time. But we can control what we eat, which may strengthen your embryo, and will ease how you feel throughout your morning sickness.
I believe that managing our first trimester hunger with high quality nutrition is the key to managing our morning sickness, and it can be easy and convenient if we plan ahead a little and make it readily available for us to grab first thing in the morning.
Despite those weeks of feeling sick and oh-so-tired, my morning sickness was easy compared to many women. I attribute this to the choice of foods I reached for when hunger took over, and never letting myself get hungry in between. By eating small amounts of high-quality foods all day long, I kept my nausea from worsening and affecting my daily performance.
By eating right during our first trimester, we’re setting a foundation for eating right throughout our pregnancy, gifting our child with optimum strength and development. This also sets the stage for the tastes our Little One, once born, will be keen to. By eating a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables during our pregnancy, our baby will be more apt to accept those foods as an infant and toddler (just think of the tantrums you can avoid!).
Have you switched up your diet during pregnancy? What changes did you notice? Share your stories in the comments below!
Have questions on how to build a better pregnancy diet? Ask in the comments below and I’ll be sure to follow up with an answer.
Also check out my post, What to Eat and Not to Eat: Eating While Pregnant - A Pregnancy Diet.