Nutrition in Pregnancy + Beyond: The First Trimester

When I excitedly discovered that I was pregnant with my second child, I quickly realized that the details of my first pregnancy, although recent, were fairly fuzzy.  Did I feel this nauseated/bloated/tired/constipated/[insert undesirable side effect here] last time?  What steps did I take to combat those ailments, and did any of them actually work?  Now that I'm less than 2 months from my due date, I'm reflecting on the stages of pregnancy and the corresponding nutrition and wellness strategies I utilized for each phase, beginning with the first trimester.  For my fellow pregnant mamas and mamas-to-be, congratulations and good luck!  It's a wondrous ride.     

The first trimester (also known as: is she pregnant or did she just eat a burrito?)

THE ISSUES*

"I just had the best dream that I was taking a nap." - Right around the time my son started running (read: my level of casual activity increased), my energy levels faced an all-time low.  During my first pregnancy, I experienced more flexibility (sleeping in on weekends, crashing after work), but this time around I needed to find ways to maximize my energy stores.  

"I'm not crying, you're crying!" - Pregnant or not, I'm a sensitive person.  Add pregnancy hormones to the mix, and I'm a bundle of emotions.  Finding ways to rein in these emotions (when necessary) was key to a more fluid transition into pregnancy (for everyone involved!).   

"Do I smell chicken?  I think I'm going to be sick." - I (luckily!) have only experienced nausea (and not vomiting) during both of my pregnancies.  For reasons unknown, the smell of chicken - a former staple during our weeknight dinners - brought on said nausea.  Without entirely avoiding food or going the opposite route and eating like I was fueling for a marathon (carbo-loading anyone?), I worked to manage my nausea while practicing moderation (and expanding lean protein options beyond poultry!).

"Babe, your nose is bleeding again." - In place of vomiting during the first trimester, I got hit with other forms of illness.  The highlights included weekly bloody noses, excruciating headaches, and the occasional fever - none of which were pleasant, but all of which were bearable without significant medical intervention.  Still, who wants to deal with these when you're already experiencing fatigue and nausea!?

THE STRATEGIES

In pregnancy and beyond, my diet, activity level, and rest all strongly influence my mood, energy, and overall wellness.  So, I targeted these three areas to optimize my health (read: to not feel like crap) during the first trimester of my second pregnancy.  Here are the tricks that proved successful for me.**

On mood:  During pregnancy #2, my food-based, mood-boosting savior came in smoothie form.  I could toss in loads of veggies, a small serving of fruit, protein powder, and healthy fats to create a balanced and palatable meal (that I could also drink with one hand while tending to a toddler).  As my tastes and preferences changed, I simply adjusted the ingredients to fit my craving of the day without relying on energy-dense, nutrient-poor substitutes (I even created a delicious mint chocolate chip smoothie to sip on instead of reaching for a pint of similarly flavored ice cream!).  

Other nutrition-related approaches to mood improvement included:

  1. Increasing my fiber intake (through foods like non-starchy vegetables, berries, avocado, chia seeds, ground flax, and GG crackers)
  2. Limiting simple carbohydrates (such as white bread and baked goods)
  3. Staying hydrated (primarily through still + sparkling water)
  4. Sneaking in vegetables wherever I could stomach them (cauliflower-crust pizza, veggie-packed smoothies, carrots + celery smothered in natural peanut butter)

These tactics helped to stabilize my blood sugar thus (1) reducing the emotional rollercoaster that can coincide with blood sugar's rapid rise and fall, and (2) keeping me satiated rather than wavering between feeling very hungry or very full between meals and snacks.          

On energy:  The food-related strategies that I employed to boost my mood (mentioned above) also served as energy boosters (bonus!).  The more energy dense foods I ate (think bagels, pizza, pasta, candy, ice cream), the less energetic I felt...and the less likely I was to exercise.  To boost endorphins (hello happiness!) along with my energy levels during my first trimester, I focused on working out 4-5 days per week.  Of course, I still felt tired, but I actually felt worse on days that I didn't at least go for a long walk or two.  I found the key to engaging in exercise began with a balanced diet and with redefining what qualified as exercise (basically, any form of activity counted!).  Some days I conquered stadium runs and others I simply tried to maximize my step count.  

On nausea:  During the first trimester, even the thought of a large, leafy green salad topped with grilled chicken made me feel nauseated.  I wanted all the plain, simple carbs - the ones that zap your energy, leave you feeling hungry within an hour, and do little to get your digestive system moving.  For me, the best strategy to reduce nausea focused more on meal timing than on meal composition.  I ate within 30 minutes of waking up and continued eating small meals every couple hours.  For meal composition, I tried to create or find healthier versions of the foods that felt safe for my uneasy stomach.  I incorporated starchy vegetables (like sweet potatoes), legume-based pastas, and high fiber crackers to provide both the carbohydrates that I craved and the valuable nutrients that I needed.  

On illness:  With a weakened immune system during pregnancy (so that baby can thrive!), illness is more likely to hit.  I couldn't prevent every bloody nose, fever, or headache that I encountered, but I did learn how to shorten their stay.  Hydration and rest had the biggest impacts on the severity of my ailments.  So, I carried a water bottle with me at all times, stocked my fridge with seltzer, and placed a humidifier in my bedroom.  Napping often left me feeling more tired (and wasn't always an option!) so I aimed to get to bed an hour earlier than usual (with a glass of water on my nightstand).  

On overall wellbeing:  Prioritizing self-care at even the most basic levels (eat, move, sleep, hydrate) left me better equipped to create meaningful work, to successfully manage the household, and to enjoy time with family and friends.  Focus a little extra on yourself so that you're healthy enough to devote quality time and energy to others! 

To all those in the beginning stages of pregnancy, I hope these tips help to boost your mood, energy, and wellness during an emotional + transformative time of your life.  Congratulations, mama! You can do this! 

Side notes:

*I recognize how blessed I am to experience two healthy pregnancies.  While pregnancy comes with challenges in many forms, those that I faced were absolutely minor and pale in comparison to the joys associated with becoming a mother.  

**As a dietitian, I work to employ evidence-based nutrition practices while recognizing and understanding the unique circumstances of the individual.  If you're interested in personalized prenatal or postpartum nutrition services, please contact me