I had a rough start to my journey of having children, as you’ll read here, but it’s now going really well.
I am not an expert in this field, and I do NOT claim that eating how I eat will have the same results for you as it did for me. I am simply sharing my experience. Genes, health history, circumstances, and our emotional contribution to our health are all very different for all of us and I don’t judge you for how you eat. I do NOT think that pregnancy outcomes are totally within our control. Not by any means!
But here is my experience. I have had three successful pregnancies in 5 years, have felt really good during my pregnancies and never thrown up or had debilitating nausea, have had great energy, have gained between 18-25 lbs each time, have lost that weight effortlessly within a few months of giving birth. I love being pregnant! I’ve breastfed my babies for at least a year and never once used even a drop of formula. I have never had gestational diabetes, pain during pregnancy, or postpartum depression. I completely acknowledge that these things are not always controllable by lifestyle, but sometimes lifestyle can reduce chances or minimize severity.
(If you’d like to listen to my story of overcoming PCOS through diet, you can listen to this podcast episode!)
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Loss and Confusion
I have always been excited to have kids and be a mom. Although I’ve always been fairly fit and healthy, as a teenager and young adult, I rarely had a consistent menstrual cycle. When I did, it was very painful and I was taking ibuprofen every time.
This next part of the story is very sad and unrelated to my diet, but is vital to my story. Despite my inconsistent cycles, I thankfully, miraculously, got pregnant easily twice early in my marriage, but lost our first baby at 20 weeks gestation due to an incompetent cervix—my cervix just opened up asymptomatically when my baby started to get heavy, leading to severely premature labor. It was heartbreaking. I was able to conceive again a few months later, and had a preventative cerclage placed, meaning they sewed my cervix shut to prevent preterm labor. However, that failed and our second baby was born at 22 weeks and lived just an hour. It was a horrific time for me.
At this point I was 25 years old and wondering if I would ever have a living baby. I then discovered, mostly through Facebook groups of other women like me, about a hopeful procedure I could have done. It is a more invasive procedure, called a transabdominal cerclage, that is permanent and holds my cervix closed so it can never dilate to give birth (this is why I have to have c-sections).
Now hopefully able to sustain a full-term pregnancy, my menstrual cycle was more off than ever before. I would go 60-90 days without a period, never knowing when it would come. When it did, it was terribly painful. I saw a fertility doctor who said I was not ovulating and probably had PCOS. We were surrounded by friends having babies, and I was the only wife in our circle without a baby or two. I watched other people live the dream I prayed for and it was one of the hardest times of my life. I wished our first two babies had lived. I wished for something to look forward to. I did ovulation test strips every day for months only to get negative after negative.
I was super confused as to how to eat for fertility. I was working while my husband was in grad schooI. At this time, I basically ate vegetarian. Although I thought I ate really healthy with all the fruits and vegetables, no meat, and very little processed food– little did I realize how much I could improve.
I tried a sugar free and gluten free diet for a while. I prayed and searched for answers. My internet search results overwhelmingly suggested a low-carb and high-fat diet for fertility. My husband started to go down the high-fat train, wanting to put coconut oil in my smoothies hoping it would help me. However, it didn’t feel right to me. I had leaned vegetarian for about 10 years and didn’t want to start eating more meat, and my religion and the story of Daniel in the Bible teaches that grains are good and meat should be eaten sparingly, so I didn’t want to eat low carb.
Getting answers and success
As I prayed and sought inspiration from God, I slowly started to find resources and feel guided to a whole food plant-based diet. I stopped eating dairy and eggs, and tried to eat less sugar and processed foods (even on the very low budget we lived on then). After 9 months of trying to conceive, we finally did conceive our daughter who became the light of our lives.
Since then, I’ve maintained a whole food plant based diet. I was able to conceive our next two babies the very first month of trying. After that 9-month struggle before I ate WFPB, it feels amazing to have zero struggle!
For all three of those pregnancies, I have aimed to eat a whole food plant based diet. I have not been perfect, because I sometimes eat some white flour, sugar, oil, and occasional dairy in social settings. However, I never had meat or even fish (although every pregnancy app recommends eating some fish during pregnancy!). One key is I have focused not only on what NOT to eat, but mostly on what TO eat: as many leafy greens as possible, lots of fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils. I make an effort to eat leafy greens every day in either a green smoothie or a big salad at lunch or dinner. I try to only eat homemade treats that are made with whole grains, limited sweeteners, and no oil. They are usually made of dates, nuts, fruit, or include oats and beans (yes, beans, you’ve got to try chickpea chocolate chip cookies. They are our main cookie recipe). Lots of greens and other fruits and vegetables are so healing! I feel amazing eating this way—I have no reason to stop.
Why a WFPB diet improved my fertility
In a nutshell, I think fiber, no dairy, and improved insulin sensitivity are why my fertility improved. Many problems with fertility are because of excess hormones (such as androgens and estrogen). When you eat a lot of fiber (which is ONLY found in whole, plant foods btw), that fiber escorts unwanted hormones out of your body. Animal products do not have fiber. If meat, eggs, and dairy products are a prominent part of your diet, you may not have enough fiber to soak up and remove those excess hormones, so they are reabsorbed back into your bloodstream. Only 5% of Americans are eating enough fiber, so chances are, you may benefit from eating a greater variety and quantity of whole, plant foods.
Aside from fiber, I believe another ticket to my improved fertility was ditching dairy. What I thought was a moderate amount of dairy was still clearly influencing my hormones. Cow milk is rich with estrogen from the often-pregnant cows they come from. Milk sugar (lactose) has also been shown to decrease fertility. There are a lot of studies presented in the book Your Body in Balance by Neal Barnard that illustrate the effects of dairy on hormones. If you’re trying to conceive, just cut it out completely! It’s worth it.
Insulin is a hormone that is off-kilter in women with PCOS, and when you eat the right foods, it works much better. A low-fat plant-based diet is proven to lower insulin resistance, and on top of that, the foods you’ll be eating will naturally keep blood sugar more stable because of the complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats and protein. Stable blood sugars are key to hormone health, and this way of eating will not just be a band-aid but actually foundationally help your body handle carbs without spikes. Here is a very comprehensive blog post about it.
Pregnancy Nutrition and Vitamins
Try to take food-derived prenatal vitamins, which are vitamins coming from food instead of synthetic vitamins made in a factory. I have used this Garden of Life brand or the Joel Fuhrman brand. I like these two because they don’t contain folic acid (the synthetic form) and instead contain folate (the natural form). There are studies that suggest that synthetic folic acid is cancer-promoting, whereas folate from food is protective. I have a link here to an article explaining the importance of folate versus folic acid.
As far as nutrition during pregnancy, there is no way to get as much nutrition as eating whole, plant foods! It is a huge blessing to you and your baby to flood your body with the antioxidants, enzymes, minerals, and phytonutrients in whole, plant foods. Those foods have the most nutrition per calorie and make it possible to get enough nutrition without gaining too much weight or burdening your body any extra. And yes, it’s possible to get enough fat and protein. If you want to make sure of it, get the Cronometer app and enter in your food intake every once in a while. It’s fascinating, and it can be validating and comforting to see how much nutrition you’re getting! This is a great article outlining nutrition needs during pregnancy and ideas of how to do it on a WFPB diet. I get a lot of my protein mostly from whole grains (even just whole wheat bread has a lot!), beans, lentils, tofu, soy milk. I don’t use protein powders but you could get a plant-based one if you want. I recommend this one. because it contains water-washed soy which is less processed (basically like crushed edamame), and contains your vitamin B12 and D that you need anyway!
An hour or so before my first c-section.
Other suggestions I have for conceiving
Track ovulation! Learning about your cycle is the window to what’s going on!
I like the Temp Drop which is a thermometer you wear at night, so you don’t have to take your temp each morning at the same time, which can be inconvenient and inaccurate if you’re up during the night. Click here for a discount on the Temp Drop that you can use ON TOP of other sales. It syncs to an app to create a temperature chart for you to see when ovulation is happening. They have a Facebook group and lots of support to help you get the hang of fertility awareness.
Check out the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility for an easy crash course on your cycle–it’s something that everyone should understand.
I have exclusively breastfed my babies. They’ve never had a drop of formula or cows milk (they’ve had some cheese as children but never drunk milk). I think this has benefited them tremendously–they’ve never been constipated or even had an ear infection (dairy or dairy allergies may be correlated to ear infections).
A whole food plant-based diet is excellent for having a good milk supply. Breastfeeding moms are encouraged to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at every meal, which are the staples of a plant based diet anyway!
Breastmilk is composed of 87% water, 7 % carbohydrate, 4% fat and 1% protein. It’s 95% water and carbs! So you need to drink water and eat carbs! Eating a low-carb or keto lifestyle has made women unable to produce milk.
Foods that help milk production all happen to be whole, plant foods. Oats, flax seeds, chickpeas, dark green vegetables, garlic and ginger are all lactogenic foods. Try making my delicious lactation cookies recipe (that you might as well make whether you lactate or not–they are just a yummy wholesome cookie).
How to Get Enough Calories on a WFPB Diet
When pregnant and breastfeeding, you need more calories. I get famished so I eat more. Although it can be inconvenient to prepare more food, it’s fairly easy to get those extra calories in my experience! Just eat whenever you’re hungry and eat as much as you need!
Batch cook and bake so you have convenient foods. For quick snacks, make some muffins, breakfast cookies, energy bites, homemade toaster waffles, nuts, fruit, hummus and veggies. Double your meals when making dinner so you can freeze some, or make freezer meals. Go into massive food production if you need, but I find that I eat pretty much the same foods (just varying amounts) whether I’m pregnant, breastfeeding, or not. I try extra hard to get leafy greens and flax seed every day. Being pregnant is certainly not an excuse to eat a lot of junk food–it’s a time when what you eat is affecting someone else’s future. Listen to your body’s needs (not just wants) and let it be your guide, not this post.
Herbs and Supplements During Pregnancy
I’m a big fan of herbs, but don’t use them as much as I could. While trying to conceive the first time, I did take Vitex/ Chasteberry and Maca root. My diet is my supplement, but there is a whole world of herbs I hope to explore.
Bringing a child into the world and nourishing him or her is one of the most powerful things you could ever do. Doing it well is worth every sacrifice and effort, in my opinion. I truly feel that a whole food plant-based diet is the best for all phases of life, but is perhaps no more influential than in these phases of creating new life. Having a baby is a very emotionally taxing time with roller-coaster hormones affecting mental health tremendously. I find that these foods feed my soul and spirit and my gut (which is very connected to the brain) to help me be more stable and happy mentally. I also believe that you have the power to find your own answers and what is best for you and your baby–that you can seek and feel peace about things that may even seem trivial like whether to eat eggs or not. Seek, and you shall find.