Diet and Exercise in Pregnancy: What Is “Healthy?”


“So, how far along are you?” asked the woman at the gym as she eyed the slight bump on my stomach and then looked at me skeptically. I’d never met her before, but we both stood in the aerobics room after stretching class, a light 45 minutes of slowing breathing and flexibility-enhancing exercises.

“Twenty weeks,” I responded, smiling that a stranger could finally tell I was pregnant!

“Oh, honey.” She shook her head, “You better be careful in here with this class.”

I felt both irritated and amused. I was irritated because it was far from the first time I have been questioned for engaging in some kind of physical activity since announcing my pregnancy. I was amused because some light stretching is exactly what my body has needed lately, and this class had been just that. Instead of expressing any of this, I simply smiled and told the woman that because I’d been very active before I was expecting, my doctor had approved me for any physical activities that were familiar and felt comfortable.

“It’s really ok,” I told her, smiling as people filed into the room for the next class. “I work out a lot. My body is used to it.”

“I see,” she said, raising one eyebrow. “This is your first child, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, roughly but clearly translating her disapproval.

I just sort of nodded, feeling lost for words. The woman looked at the people coming in and asked, “What is this class going on now?”

Perking up, I just grinned at her.

“Dance fitness,” I said, “I’m the instructor. I actually teach several classes a week. You should stay….or come another day if you can’t today!”

Her mouth hung open.

Now I am no expert on pregnancy, and I admit that this is my first baby. However, I do know something about health. I grew up in a family with several health professionals, and I am very into holistic medicine. Since I am a fitness instructor and a distributor for a natural wellness business, I am also always reading up on health topics. From what I know about the basics of health and nutrition, there are some opinions about what is normal for pregnancy that seem to be the opposite of what we normally consider to be healthy, especially when it comes to food and physical activity.

First let me say that my growing baby’s health is my first priority. I do a lot of reading in that area. Also, if my doctor told me that anything I was doing was not a good idea during pregnancy, I would stop doing that thing immediately. Aside from the first priority of safety, I’ve always known that I also wanted to try and be fit and healthy during pregnancy. I want to gain the proper amount of weight to support all my baby’s needs without packing on too many pounds that are going to hang around later. I also want to maintain muscle so that I can be more prepared for labor and more ready to bounce back afterwards. Most importantly, I want to make sure that my family is as healthy as possible. I want my kids to be familiar with vegetables and enjoy using their bodies. What better place to start than from the very beginning? So far, I have read my books and listened closely to my doctor and my body. I’ve felt pretty great this pregnancy, and the baby couldn’t be healthier. Despite all of this, I’ve been met by a wide array of strong opinions for and against my current lifestyle that have prompted me to share five ideas on what healthy diet and exercise can look like during pregnancy.

1. Eat more….healthy foods, that is.

Simple, but true. There are lots of folks will tell you to eat “whatever you want-enjoy it! You need the calories!” And sure, that sounds great, because you probably have some pretty strong cravings. But here is the thing: you probably wouldn’t feed your baby chicken tenders for every meal, right? But if you let yourself do that during pregnancy–that is kind of what is happening. And, interestingly enough, studies have shown that the food you consume during pregnancy may have some effect on your child’s cravings later in his or her life. If you are what you eat, and you’re feeding two people, you’ve got a special opportunity to get things off to a great start! So just try your best to remember what you know about healthy eating. And in case you forgot, I’ll tell you!

First off, being pregnant does not mean you are literally “eating for two.” It is only suggested that pregnant women add around 300 calories to their diets. That’s about the same as a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter. However, quality trumps quantity, and who likes to count calories? Not me! So here’s my philosophy: the more healthy foods you eat, the less unhealthy ones you’ll have room for. So focus on putting good stuff in. It is recommended that pregnant women consume a great deal of protein (approx. 75 grams daily). Additionally, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates (like whole and sprouted grains, quinoa, and rice), dairy and healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive/coconut oil, and dark chocolate) are always good choices. Also, some people will tell you to cut out all vitamins and supplements except for your prenatal, but if you think about it, that doesn’t actually make much sense, does it? Supplements often simply fill in the nutrition that our diets should but can’t quite meet. Protein and smoothie powders can also be a miraculous source of nutrition during pregnancy, especially if you suffer from nausea and food aversions. Don’t be nervous about branching out from the prenatal, just check out supplements with your doctor.

I am not suggesting you go “on a diet;” I’m only saying that adopting these foundations that can ultimately improve your health and your family’s health, and now is a great time to work on those foundations! Also, if you develop a healthy eating plan and stick to it pretty well, there is a bonus: you are not trying to lose weight right now, so you don’t always have to turn up your nose at whole milk, butter, juicy steak, or other non-diet foods that have high nutritional value. Likewise, it’s okay to splurge on occasion. Just be thoughtful, not impulsive, about those splurges. Don’t help yourself to a DQ Blizzard every time you want one. However, if you’ve been craving it for several days and haven’t been able to fend off that craving with some healthy alternatives…. then it might be worth a spurge at the end of the week!

2. Exercise!

I am not going to say how much or what kind is right for you; I’m just saying try to do it. Dance fitness was right for me because it’s my job, and I’d been doing it every day for a long time before pregnancy. Was there an exercise you were engaging in before your pregnancy? Yoga? Running? Jillian Michaels? If so, don’t assume you are going to have to quit it. As long as you get the “ok” from your doctor and modify to your comfort level, exercise can be a great help during pregnancy.

Also, you need to listen to your body. Many times I have not wanted to go work out, but I knew I should. There were definitely mornings when nausea made me want to stay home, but I knew I could push through it. Other times I knew working out would be a huge mistake, so I had to cancel. It’s all about learning to feel the difference between when you just don’t feel like it and when you shouldn’t. Also, learn to modify: if a move or activity feels weird or unstable, do something else. If you are in a fitness class, your trainer should be able to show you the right modifications. Also, it’s really important for your baby that you don’t get breathless. Use the “talk test” to be sure you’re getting enough oxygen. That just means that you should able to carry on a conversation while exercising. If you can’t carry on a conversation while exercising, you should slow down.

Finally, even if you weren’t exercising before, pregnancy doesn’t mean it’s too late to start. You just may need to choose something a bit gentler; now is not the time to start Crossfit or P90X. I have several friends who are enjoying prenatal yoga, walking, and swimming as strengthening but gentle exercises during pregnancy. Bonus: continued exercise during pregnancy enhances your endurance for labor and helps your body and energy bounce back faster post-partum.

3. Drink water!

How many times do you hear this one? It’s even more important when you are carrying an extra person inside you! Mayo Clinic recommends at least 10 cups of water daily for pregnant women. Especially if you sweat a lot, like I do, drink up! Recently in a class I was teaching, my face started turning red and my sweat seemed super salty. I felt light-headed, and I realized I had not had nearly enough water! Two bottles later, I started feeling much better.
Also, if you are a water retainer (I am), the more you drink, the less you’ll keep. Water can be boring, I know. Luckily there are limitless ways to make it more interesting. I love to add half a lemon to mine to zest it up a bit (lemon is also thought to help with water retention). You could also cool a pitcher of water with some herbs and cucumbers, or play around with club soda and frozen berries for a special treat! You’ll be amazed at how creative you can get!

4. Sleep.

Not difficult to do, if you are like me. I love sleep but normally forego naps because I feel guilty about taking the time for them. If this is you, then get excited! A huge pregnancy perk is that there is zero judging from others when you say you need to lie down for a while! Just like good nutrition, sufficient sleep is a vital part of being healthy. I realize that it may be much more difficult to snag time for naps if you already have young children, so I am just reminding you that sleep is important enough to make your priority list. Also, you’ll never have a better excuse!

5. Listen to your body, your doctor, and very few others.

There is an absolutely confusing plethora of opinions about what it means to take care of yourself during this time of life. If you listen to everyone about all of the specific things you should do or not do during pregnancy, then you will find yourself being very confused. I recently Googled some “Should I _____ during pregnancy?” questions just for fun, and I got a huge number of very diverse opinions! Furthermore, everyone’s opinion is strong, even if they don’t know you well (or at all, like the woman I met at the gym).

I’ve tried to keep my tips here full of wiggle-room, but even this might not be right for you. If you have suffered from horrible morning sickness and food aversions and find you can only eat crackers and noodles, then eat the crackers and noodles! If you are hungry, eat. If you can move, then exercise. If you are tired, try to rest. Always drink water (no excuses for that one). Just do the best you can for you and your situation. Listen to yourself, your physician, and a few special people whom you respect and trust.

While pregnancy is a different season of life, it doesn’t require us to give in to every whim. Instead, it asks us to make wise choices. It requires us to use both discipline and flexibility; we may deny ourselves poor choices in favor of better ones, yet we also may recognize when it’s okay to give in a little. It’s a time when we have to discern whom to listen to and whom to ignore. While everyone has an opinion, we have to rely on our own instincts in taking care of ourselves.

In these ways, I can see how taking good care of oneself during pregnancy is some small preparation for motherhood. Most importantly, having healthy diet and exercise patterns during this time allows us to set the foundation for our children. When I’m strengthening my muscles or eating a vibrant salad or taking a nap, I think about the little baby girl growing inside of me, and I hope that these are some of the healthy habits that I can pass along to her.

HHM Katie Gustafson Bio Photo Resized Katie is a Christian who loves to draw, dance, write, cook, and be with family. She and Dane, her husband of three years, reside in South Mississippi.  She is generally a pretty creative type (with corresponding absent-minded tendencies). She was home schooled, and she received her BA in Psychology from Covenant College.  Katie is also certified in teaching reading through the Wilson Reading System and has taught at a private school for children with learning disabilities; she is currently working on an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature. She also teaches Zumba fitness as a licensed instructor.  Katie and Dane are expecting their first child, a little girl, in July 2015. They look forward to homeschooling all of their children in the future!  You can follow her personal blog at Write Where You Are.

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