Intuitive Eating & Wellness Culture in Pregnancy
If you read my last blog you will know that I decided to approach this second pregnancy much differently to my first. I went into pregnancy #2 feeling a sense of calm over what I should/would eat – but also being nervous about how this might affect me (and my unborn baby). Mostly though, I was really freaked about how I was going to manage pregnancy nausea and fatigue with an active toddler.
During pregnancy #1 I was in the thick of my orthorexic tendencies and wellness culture, so I had convinced myself that with all the “right things” I was doing, I would magically avoid morning sickness. Wow was I wrong! It was not a pretty first trimester. The nausea was out of this world, and it lasted all day and all night for what felt like a lifetime. Wellness culture makes us believe that we can eat-and-“look after”-ourselves- invincible. That we can take such good care of ourselves that we will somehow be spared the fate of the masses. Untrue. False. Rubbish. In fact, it was precisely because of my wellness culture guilt that I believe I struggled so much in pregnancy #1. All I wanted was white bread, cakes, biscuits, carbs. And all I ate was almonds – protein, right? I was gluten intolerant after all. Wasn’t I? How could I start off my baby’s life by ingesting food that was going to mount an immune response and potentially cause harm? This was my internal narrative…for 9 long months… No wonder I emerged with intense health anxiety!
So, with pregnancy #2, when the nausea began, I was prepared. Biscuits, cakes, crackers, white bread, easy to digest processed foods, and anything else I felt I could stomach, was on hand. I also had a stash of homeopathics, and as soon as it became unbearable, I stopped taking all supplements except for folinic acid. I was not going to force myself to take my stinky multivitamin like I did the first time around. Anything that made me even slightly queasy (even at the thought of it) was not allowed near my mouth – no matter how “nutritious” it was. The end result of this was still nausea – but much better than with #1. Now, of course every pregnancy is different and who knows why I felt better this time – I’m not going to pretend that it was a result of anything I did or didn’t do, because that’s just not possible to prove. But I do know for sure, that by listening to my body and doing exactly what it asked for and when it asked for it, I was better able to get through the rough days with a sense of peace.
And this intuitive peace continues now – even at 25 weeks. The nausea is long gone (thankfully), but the need to nourish my body and my senses certainly is not. I crave energy at certain times of the day – and if that comes in the form of cake or chocolate, then so be it. No guilt attached. Does this mean I am uncontrollably eating cake and chocolate? No. This is what intuitive eating means – that we listen to our body cues – hunger, fullness, comfort, discomfort, digestive capacity, bowel movements etc etc. Intuitive Eating also means that pleasure matters. Whether we find something satisfying on a soul level is relevant – very important, in fact! Pregnancy is hard enough as it is. There are enough stresses and pressures already. Eating food that is enjoyable, satisfying and fulfilling is a really important element of self-care – for both our physical and mental health. Discovering the satisfaction factor with pregnancy #2 has been fun! It helped me to see my pregnancy nausea in a different light – and it helped to bring optimism during those particularly “yuk” days. It has allowed my husband and I to cook together and eat together. It has helped me fuel Zara’s little body in a way that is stress-free and enjoyable.
Pregnancy is also a really weird time metabolically, because our digestive organs are literally being squished and moved out of place. Hormonal changes cause massive disruptions to digestive capacity, and our nutritional needs are vastly different when we are growing a baby compared to just having to nourish ourselves. So many women fall into the trap of thinking they can and should just “eat the way I usually do” during pregnancy. Some of this is wellness culture making us feel like utter sh*t if we don’t eat “well” during pregnancy, but a lot of it is diet culture constantly reminding us how hard it will be to lose the “baby weight”, and how we need to be careful not to “let ourselves go” during pregnancy (more on this in my next blog on body image in pregnancy!).
Considering we are technically responsible for growing another human being though, should we be mindful about what we eat? Do we need to be a little extra careful? Well, yes… but the way we do that is important. For example, we know that drinking alcohol and smoking is not safe for unborn babies. We KNOW these things. There is cold, hard, clear evidence that supports this stuff without a doubt. We also KNOW that taking folinic acid (the preferred form of folate) is pivotal in reducing the risk of neural tube defects. There is also fascinating research emerging about the beneficial effects of other nutrients during pregnancy (like Vitamin D and Essential Fatty Acids). This is where being under the care of a nutritionist or naturopath can really help – and as a nutritionist I am mindful of ensuring I have adequate intake of these nutrients, for both my health and the health of my growing baby.
But, when ALL I WANT TO EAT is cheese – even though a sensitivity test told me (about 5 years ago) that I’m “intolerant” to dairy, what should I do? I choose to turn to intuitive eating. I choose to turn inwards and give it a try – eat the cheese and see what happens. As a side note, it’s no wonder that a pregnant woman would crave or want something like cheese – it is an easy source of protein and calcium, both of which are needed in abundance during pregnancy. If anything gets sapped from us rapidly, it’s calcium – so when we “crave” things in pregnancy, it’s important not to dismiss that. Cravings are our body’s ingenious way of telling us what we actually NEED. This is why it’s so important to sit back and listen. Back to the cheese… I have happily eaten cheese this entire pregnancy and while it has, on occasion, sparked a gallbladder attack or cramping and bloating when NOT pregnant, I’m happy to say that it has had no ill effects on me whatsoever over the last 25 weeks. In fact, it was my saviour in the first trimester and really helped to alleviate the nausea. Do I worry sometimes about eating cheese? Sure I do! The wellness culture devil is perched on my shoulder, silently whispering in my ear most days, reminding me that I “shouldn’t” eat dairy, and that dairy is “inflammatory”, and that I could be causing my unborn child to develop allergies and intolerances later in life. But I’m working on this – I’m working on my health anxiety with a therapist, and I’m constantly learning more about Intuitive Eating and its nuances. More and more I am believing (and living) that I can’t be responsible for it all – my health and my baby’s health doesn’t just rely on me. I have to trust in the higher power which, right now, is telling me and guiding me towards cheese and dairy. Without this trust, what is there? Where does it leave us?
I tell you the cheese story to also illustrate the way that our bodies are constantly shifting and changing. What works today may not serve us tomorrow. And what held true 5 years ago may not be relevant today. There is no right or wrong way – there is no superfood or bad food. There’s just food. And when we remove the labels, the guilt, the shame and anxiety associated with “being the healthiest we can possibly be”, or “giving our baby the best start in life”, then we can actually start to see the forest for the trees. Our health is big picture stuff – it is complex and multifaceted. Getting caught up in micronutrients and macronutrients, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, clean or unclean, draws us too far into the detail. It ignores the way we feel, the stage we are at, and what our own body is telling us is true. If there is EVER a time in life when Intuitive Eating should be considered, it is precisely at times like pregnancy. Intuitive Eating definitely doesn’t ignore the importance of gentle nutrition (in case you were thinking that…), and it doesn’t ignore the fact that there are precautions we need to take during pregnancy (to avoid contamination from bacteria etc…) – but it takes all of this into consideration under the overarching principle that our body knows best. Our body (including our heart and soul) knows precisely what it needs and when. It will tell us when we have taken a less-favourable path, and without judgement and self-criticism, we will be able to choose another path which serves us better next time.
The desire and urgency for perfection in pregnancy is a real social burden which pregnant women carry. The pressure to do it all “right” and make it the BEST nine months possible (for everyone involved), is intense. But the stress which this causes on the pregnant woman (and all of those around her – including her unborn baby) is far more destructive than any foods could ever be. The lasting effects of orthorexic-like tendencies in pregnancy are far-reaching. Health anxiety, generalised anxiety and post-partum depression are all very real consequences of taking pregnancy health “too far”. Using health as the focus during pregnancy is a way of trying to maintain control over an uncontrollable situation – pregnancy is one of those times where our fate really is left to the gods. How the baby will develop, whether there will be complications, how the birth will proceed, how our body will react… pregnancy is the ultimate test of relinquishing control, surrendering to the unknown, and soulfully embracing uncertainty. While this is painfully difficult for so many women, it is perfectly crafted preparation for the uncertainty which parenthood then brings. If anything about becoming a mother has hit me hard, it’s the realisation that I need to let go of control, and acknowledge that life can no longer be lived without flexibility and uncertainty. We never know what’s around the corner, and that is glaringly obvious when you add a child to the mix!
The lessons I have learnt about eating and food during pregnancy will remain with me throughout the rest of my eating life – going slowly, listening to my body cues, adapting to the changing tide, embracing flexibility, rejecting rules and the shame they bring. When you look at these lessons, they are actually less about food and eating, and more about the true meaning and purpose of life. When we use times like pregnancy, and any other major life transitions, to see the bigger picture, we can recognise what our soul is here to learn. We can see why the situation has come before us, and how we can grow and evolve because of it.