I am a 39-year-old woman who has grown to love good sushi, fine wine, and all the other little luxuries of life.
So when I became pregnant with my fourth child in 2013 at age 36 and realized I wouldn’t be touching my beloved ahi tower from the sushi restaurant I frequent every weekend, I actually — no joke — shed a tear.
It wasn't just those tears over sushi. The minute the second pink line showed up on the stick, I mentally switched over to Pregnancy Restriction Mode. I dumped my cup of coffee down the drain, and I kissed my bottle of red wine goodbye.
At first I soldiered along and told myself it was all for the baby. But somehow, even though this had been easy to do in my 20s with my first pregnancies, this didn’t sit right with me anymore.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ve grown into the kind of mom who is able to balance my own wants and needs with my children’s. And this pregnancy martyrdom was making me miserable.
Aside from that, some of the “rules” of pregnancy weren’t jibing with my common sense. For example, one respected medical website had a nutritionist recommending chemical-laden diet soda as one of your eight liquids to hydrate, but coffee and wine, both with proven health benefits, were forbidden 100 percent. Americans can be so strange: we have phobias about things like fresh sushi but give no second thought to the chemicals and junk found in fast food and sodas.
And so as a certified nutrition coach and an experienced mom, I decided to make my own pregnancy eating decisions based on my instincts, common sense, and tireless research. I didn't just break some rules — I also added my own, banning high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat, artificial sweeteners, fast and processed foods, and sodas. All of these chemicals and preservatives and their proven health risks were much scarier to me than sushi, coffee, and wine.
Of course, please know that ignoring these typical pregnancy rules was simply my personal choice. I’m not recommending that everyone follow my lead, but rather, I hope to encourage every pregnant woman to do her research, talk to her health care providers, and make her own informed decisions.
Here are the four pregnancy "rules" I chose to ignore — and what I did instead:
1. "Never eat raw sushi."
The American Pregnancy Association recommends avoiding sushi during pregnancy because of the chance of bacteria in the raw meat, and also because of mercury content in certain types of fish.
I understand the concern, and at first, I followed this rule. Later, I tried to get creative and ordered baked sushi, but I hated that too.
But then my common sense asked, don’t women in Japan eat sushi all the time during pregnancy? And with some research I discovered that yes, they do — and they think Americans are crazy not to.
As a matter of fact, in the course of my research I discovered that the type of food-borne illnesses to worry about during pregnancy (toxoplasma, listeria, and salmonella) are not considered to even be a high risk with raw sushi, as long as the food is handled properly and from a reputable location.
I’ve been eating at my sushi restaurant (an expensive, local place) weekly for years now and have never been sick. I live inland, so the fish I'm eating has been flash-frozen before it arrives here. The chance of me getting food poisoning is very low.
Still, I totally get that this is enough to scare some women into not touching sushi for nine months, and I respect that.
What I Did Instead: Once I had all of this information, I weighed the pros and cons: a tiny chance of food poisoning vs. the awesome health benefits of fresh salmon, avocado, crab, cucumber for both me and my baby?
For me, it was an easy choice. So every two weeks, I allowed myself an all-salmon raw sushi dish from my favorite restaurant — and I unapologetically enjoyed it.
As for the mercury, I did decide to avoid tuna and other large game fish that can have higher levels, like swordfish, tilefish, mackerel, and shark.
2. "Never drink wine or alcohol."
Obviously, we know that binge drinking while pregnant is extremely dangerous. But again, my common sense asked, don’t many European women drink small amounts of wine while pregnant?
It turns out that yes, many do, because many doctors advise that a glass or two of wine once or twice a week is fine after the first trimester.
Plus, a 2012 study found no difference in development between 5-year-olds whose mothers abstained from alcohol during pregnancy and those of mothers who drank moderately.
American recommendations state that there's still no evidence of what a safe level of alcohol is during pregnancy, and therefore it’s best to avoid it. Again, respect to those who decide the risk is just not worth it.
But again, I’m much more scared of the toxins in a fast-food sandwich than I am of an occasional glass of red wine and all of its antioxidants.
What I Did Instead: During my pregnancy, I enjoyed one small glass of red wine every two weeks with my sushi. It was a heavenly evening that left me relaxed, my aching muscles relieved, and happy in my soul.
3. "Don’t have caffeine."
The recommendation to limit caffeine during pregnancy does have some research and studies to back it up. But while higher amounts can lead to a higher risk of miscarriage and other complications, research shows that about 200mg a day of caffeine (about one cup of coffee) is fine.
Coffee is not only the way I start my day but one of the little things in life that makes me really happy: the smell, the warmth, the taste — and yes, the pick-me-up! I didn't think it made sense to give it up completely.
What I Did Instead: While I was pregnant, I ordered a half-caf cup at Starbucks, or I made my own two cups of coffee in the morning with one-quarter regular coffee grinds and the rest decaf.
4. "Don't lift or do intense exercise."
I hate any rule that paints pregnant women as helpless, dainty, and sick with a “condition." Of course, I don't think expectant women should be lifting couches off the ground or anything — but I wasn’t about to stop strength training just because I was pregnant.
The recommendation from the medical field for prenatal exercise is to keep it slow and steady, not letting your heartbeat or your body temperature get too high. But again, common sense tells me, if this type of exercise is so great for me, why wouldn’t it be beneficial to my baby? Plus, I trust my body and I listen to it. I knew it would tell me if I was doing something that I shouldn’t be.
The good news is that since I became pregnant in 2013, the medical profession has become more vocal about the benefits of keeping up normal exercise during pregnancy.
What I Did Instead: I continued with the exercise I love, including weight lifting, kickboxing with a bag, and high-intensity exercise like tabata burpees until my body told me I shouldn’t. I also drank plenty of water, rested more than usual, and paid careful attention to how I felt.
Overall, even though I broke some common rules, my pregnancy was the healthiest and most comfortable of my four. My child was born a whopping 9 pounds, 7 ounces, and I recovered from the birth and bounced back from pregnancy in record time. My son is now a healthy, active, intelligent toddler — and I am stronger than ever, completing a half-marathon and a triathlon in the two years postpartum.
I am proud for taking control of the decisions that were beneficial not only to both my baby's and my physical health, but to my mental health as well.
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