Just several generations ago, women who planned having babies were following wise dietary advice of their grandmothers. Over thousands of years, women had accumulated the healthiest and most practical approaches to properly feeding themselves and their unborn. Pregnant women of many traditional societies still follow a sophisticated set of rules (and taboos!) that shapes their everyday dietary choices. In fact, married couples are advised by their elders to start eating particular foods, and avoid others, many months before conceiving a baby.
Unfortunately, modern pregnant women are often lacking this traditional dietary wisdom. Our industrialized world has changed dramatically over the past couple of centuries, and we are not guided any longer by our grandmothers’ advice, but rather by dry recommendations of our doctors and, often, by what we see on TV or read in popular women’s magazines. A great array of articles and books written by medical professionals and just journalists is also available to teach us what we should eat while pregnant, and their collective message is pretty consistent and uniform:
• Follow the general recommendation of the USDA Food Guide. (This famous nutritional pyramid is heavily promoted by the government and food corporations, but severely criticized by many honest researchers as being misleading, dangerous, and disease-inducing for everybody, and even more so for pregnant women.)
• Eat a diet based on plant foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, pulses, and soy. (This is a plain wrong advice since it does not take into consideration women’s real needs for essential nutrients, which increase two-fold when the woman is pregnant. Unsoaked whole grains, most soy products, and many vegetables contain phytic acid, thyroid inhibitors, or other anti-nutrients that can compromise our digestive health and rob the baby from valuable vitamins and minerals. As a whole, a mostly vegetarian, low-fat diet is extremely harmful for the health of the unborn.)
• Limit the amount of animal products and always choose lean cuts, such as skinless chicken breasts. Consume only low-fat dairy products. (Ironically, nutrients from animal foods can be absorbed in full ONLY if eaten with the fat! Body-building proteins, most micro-elements and vitamins are useless if our intake of animal fats is inadequate, since fats helps us utilize plentiful nutrients present in other foods. In addition, fats that occur naturally in meats and whole dairy products contain very important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, which are particularly beneficial for the fetus.)
• Do not consume fish oils and limit the amount of fish you eat to two servings a month, because they contain ‘too much” of vitamins D and A, and can have dangerously high levels of mercury. (However, all traditional societies highly praised various kinds of seafood as being highly beneficial for pregnant women and their babies.)
• Limit the amount of eggs you eat, or eat only egg whites, because egg yolks contain too much cholesterol. (To which we can comment that dietary cholesterol is an essential, health-promoting nutrient that does not contribute much to “bad” blood cholesterol, since the latter is mainly manufactured by the liver. In addition, cholesterol is particularly important for a proper growth of the baby).
There are more wrong recommendations in those pregnancy books:
• warning us not to eat butter but consume processed margarines and synthetic spreads instead;
• not mentioning a word about benefits of eating organ meats and fish eggs for pregnant women - the foods that were considered especially suitable for expecting mothers in many traditional cultures; and
• advising us to supplement our diets with synthetic vitamin pills to meet our needs for essential nutrition, instead of promoting nutrient-dense whole foods.
In order to find where the truth really is, and what healthy pregnant women had been eating for countless generations just before the beginning of our modern society, it would be wise to analyze some documented historical evidence of researchers who used to study different traditional tribes and societies. Historically, and depending on the region, diets of pregnant women emphasized the following foods to ensure the proper nourishment for themselves and their babies:
• Butter, cream, and whole milk (and, certainly, not pasteurised or homogenised…), which were mostly eaten in a cultured or fermented form, as cheese, kefir, yogurt, clubber, cultured butter, sour cream, etc.;
• Seafood of all sort, including fish eggs and livers, fish oils, fish heads, shrimps, oysters, scallops, etc.;
• Whole chicken, goose, or duck eggs;
• Organ meats, and especially liver, of ruminant animals (cows, buffalo, goats, sheep, bison, etc.);
• Various meats eaten with the fat attached;
• Sprouted or properly soaked grains, such as sourdough breads or long-cooked, pre-soaked porridges and gruels;
• Fermented soy products (miso, tamari, or natto);
• Rich chicken or bone broths;
• Unprocessed sea or rock salt;
• Lacto-fermented vegetables and fruits, such as kimchi, preserved prunes, or various chutneys; and
• Small amounts of “high meat”, i.e. animal products which were allowed to ferment or even “rotten” for long periods of time (Chinese-style “century eggs”, or a Vietnamese-style fermented “shrimp paste” are good examples).