7 Detox Food Swaps to Make During Pregnancy

Read up on ways to protect your baby and yourself from harmful, over-processed foods and make your prenatal diet as safe and natural as possible.

Organic Food Fruit and Vegetables on Counter Top
Photo: Linda Xiao

Even if you typically eat a fairly healthful diet, pregnancy requires some adjustments. You need extra nutrients to keep up with the demands of your changing body and growing baby, and you should avoid certain foods altogether. This doesn't mean you must follow a stringent regimen — or deny yourself — but it does mean giving a little extra thought to your food choices.

By this, we mean eating minimally processed foods with few or no additives, preservatives, pesticides, hormones, or other chemicals.

"When you eat unadulterated foods, you're getting 100 percent of the food's nutrition — nothing has been taken out and nothing is put in," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., L.D., a national media spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago.

These seven guidelines, adapted from The Whole Pregnancy Handbook by Joel M. Evans, M.D., and Robin Aronson, will help you clean up your eating habits.

1. Choose Brown Rice and Whole-Grain Pasta and Breads Instead of White

When a whole grain is processed, it's stripped of fiber and precious phytochemicals that boost immunity and helps prevent disease. Whole grains are good carbs, especially for pregnant people. The fiber they provide sustains your energy longer than refined grains and helps prevent constipation, a common problem during pregnancy.

2. Opt For Organic Fruit and Vegetables When You Can

"Organic produce is often more expensive," admits Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network and co-author of In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development (Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2000). "On the other hand, several studies show that if you eat organics, you have lower levels of pesticides in your blood."

Because of a unique developmental window of vulnerability, fetal and childhood exposure to many chemical contaminants is more dangerous than exposure later in life, Schettler says. "Avoiding neurotoxic pesticides is obviously a good thing for a growing brain, whether it's a fetus or a child," he adds. If you can't find or afford organic foods, make sure you wash your produce well.

Equally essential is filling your grocery cart with produce in every color of the rainbow. Fruit and vegetables contain important nutrients for proper fetal development, such as calcium, fiber, and iron, to name a few; each color offers different nutrients and protective properties. The deeper the color, the more nutrients you get.

For example, sweet potatoes and yellow peaches provide more carotenoids—a phytochemical class vital for fetal development—than white peaches or potatoes. Deep green romaine lettuce has more vitamin C and folate (which protects against neural-tube defects such as spina bifida) than iceberg lettuce, its paler cousin.

3. Limit foods That Are High in Salt.

Salt intake and water retention go hand-in-hand, especially when you're pregnant. For some women, high sodium intake may lead to potential pregnancy complications, such as high blood pressure.

High-salt foods are, by and large, those that are highly processed: canned soups, frozen dinners, and boxed grain dishes. Processed foods are generally higher in the ingredients you don't want more of — fat, sugar, salt, and calories — and lower in important nutrients and vitamins.

4. Avoid Foods Made With Chemical Additives

Although most chemical food additives (such as artificial colors, flavors, and refined sugars) are believed to be safe for a developing fetus, why take the chance? Foods made with chemicals are typically not your most nutritious or wholesome choices.

Artificial sweeteners, for instance, are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but some nutrition experts advise pregnant women to stay away from them. They believe not only are chemical additives unsafe for the fetus once they cross the placenta, but they also can cause stomach problems, migraines, and insomnia in adults (pregnant or not).

The basic rule of thumb: The more unpronounceable additives you find in a food's ingredient list, the less nutritious it is — for both of you.

5. Eat Grass-Fed and Hormone-Free Meat and Poultry

Protein is the building block of everything in the body, from DNA to neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) to muscle--and during pregnancy, you need a variety of protein-rich foods. One good source is hormone-free meat and poultry.

"The use of anabolic hormones is supposed to be carefully regulated, but in fact, those regulations are not always followed," Schettler says. "There are reports of measurable residual hormones in meat."

Visit Certified Humane to find a hormone- and antibiotic-free meat retailer in your area.

You also can get protein from beans, nuts, grains, legumes, and soy products. If you don't eat red meat, one of the best sources of iron, be sure to consume other iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified cereal, dried apricots and figs, blackstrap molasses, and quinoa.

6. Be Careful What You Fish For

Fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, an important nutrient for both mom and baby's heart and immune health and baby's brain development. But many fish are contaminated with mercury, toxic industrial compounds (such as PCBs), and pesticides, substances which can cause problems ranging from brain and nervous system damage to cancer.

Safe fish choices for pregnant people include farmed trout, catfish, wild Alaskan salmon, and halibut. If you don't eat fish, you can get omega-3s from walnuts and ground flaxseed; sprinkle them on cereal or yogurt.

7. Sip Smart

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, pregnant people should drink 3 liters of water daily (equivalent to about 13 8-ounce cups). This Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization gives science-based advice on health and other topics. But does it matter where the water comes from?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental action organization, maintains there is no assurance that bottled water is any cleaner than tap. Contact your local health department to investigate what's in your area's tap water. To check the purity of a particular bottled water brand, visit the NSF International website.

What is essential is that you opt for water over other drinks most of the time. Although juice can be an excellent source of folic acid, it also is high in sugar, and most are devoid of fiber. When drinking juice, avoid those sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (empty calories); choose 100% fruit juice instead.

The Bottom Line

By following these seven tips for how to choose your foods and drinks while pregnant, you can easily and simply optimize your nutrition to support a healthy pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about questions and concerns including how to choose a prenatal vitamin, food allergies, and other health considerations.

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