The irony of pregnancy is that the actual 40 weeks is referred to as "nine months." This is an especially bitter pill to swallow in the last few weeks, when you may be inclined to remind friends, family and even strangers that, technically, you have been pregnant for 10 whole months. But the reality is that the first few weeks, which doctors count as part of the 40, actually take place before you’re even pregnant.
This is the time between the first day of your period and conception, and it’s crucial: Once the egg is fertilized and implants, the embryo transforms at light-speed into a baby. At week five (the third week after conception and the fifth of 40 weeks), the embryo is busy forming its brain, spinal cord, heart and other organs. (This is also the time you may start to throw up.)
Since what goes into your body is crucial to the healthy development of your baby, it’s super important to eat healthy (and follow certain other pieces of health protocol) even before you’re pregnant. These seven steps are a great way to start.
1. Nix pesticides.
A 2012 study found that exposure to pesticides posed the same risk in pregnancy as smoking tobacco: lower birth weight and earlier labor. The study subjects weren’t farm workers. They were simply exposed to pesticides through their everyday environment, just like most of us.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a conventional apple can contain as many as 56 different types of pesticides. But you can lower your exposure by 90% simply by avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown produce.
2. Know your meat and dairy.
Make sure you choose wisely when it comes to dairy products and meat. Unfortunately, even organic, free-range can’t protect you from some toxic chemicals such as dioxin, which is found in meat. These substances accumulate in animal fat, transfer to our bodies when we eat meat, and can even be passed on to our children when we’re pregnant. Try to shift your focus during pregnancy towards more beans and whole grains and less meat — maybe once or twice a month. I also looked for more low-fat meats, and reduced the fat content by trimming it away before cooking.
3. Choose fish wisely.
Most big fish contain mercury, a neurotoxic byproduct of coal production. The scary thing about mercury — besides the fact that it damages the brain and central nervous system — is that it bioaccumulates, which means it stays in the body and can be passed on to our kids through pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Fetal exposure to mercury has been linked to lower IQs and other negative effects on developing brains, so now is a great time to follow the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendation to avoid swordfish, shark and king mackerel.
4. Hydrate healthily.
Most pregnant women are thirsty all the time. And there’s a reason for that: Your baby is drinking, too. But she’d probably take a pass on the plastic water bottle. Bottled water costs more than gas and can ring up at $50 a month, and when those bottles get warm, they can leach chemicals from the plastic into the water.
With this in mind, it’s better to drink from the tap. Unfortunately, studies show that there are more than 300 pollutants in tap water on average. But luckily, most are easy to filter out with a faucet-mounted or pitcher filter. You can even find portable stainless steel and glass water bottles now that have a filter built in. Genius!
5. Go teflon-free.
Once you’ve got all the healthy ingredients in place, make sure you keep them that way by cooking without non-stick pans. When a pan is heated to high temperatures, non-stock coatings made from chemicals like PFOAs break apart into carcinogenic substances that have also been linked to high blood pressure in pregnancy, among other problems. Make your cook wear stainless steel, iron or copper coated — even if it means losing the 12-piece set and opting for a smaller number of gently-used or new pots and pans.
6. Eat less, more often.
Try not to panic when you get hungry. Pregnancy hunger is different than regular hunger. First of all, it's pretty much a constant. But you can ease the feeling with a small amount of food, like a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts. This will be my last point about weight gain, but it’s a serious one: A 2012 study found that obesity may increase a woman’s chances of giving birth to a child with autism.
7. Befriend exercise!
From prenatal yoga to swimming to walking up a hill, the main thing is to get your heart rate going, keep the blood pumping, give yourself a little boost of energy and well-being.
Regular exercise also helps to reframe the way you think about the weight gain of pregnancy. Sure, it’s scary to have the shape of your body be completely outside of your control. But it is also really profound. Being pregnant was the first time that I valued my body not for what it looked like, but for what it could do: nurture a life, give birth, breastfeed.
While many of the other steps in this article aren’t on the agenda for a prenatal visit, don’t freak out if you’re pregnant and haven’t made these changes yet! Studies have shown that eating organic for just a few days can eliminate many of the pesticides in our bodies. Start where you can, and do the best that you can do — that’s enough!