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© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002

Good Nutrition for a Mother

This column continues our current series on how to promote the well-being of mothers. Naturally, fathers and children need well-being, too, but in our experience, it is usually the mother who is the most stressed and depleted person in the family. By improving her well-being from negative to at least neutral - and then going further into positive wellness - she's able to be at her best for herself, her children, and her partner. The previous column began discussing the single most important way to nurture a mother, through good nutrition, and this one completes our summary of that vital subject.

Up with Protein

A mother needs lots of protein for these reasons:

  • She loses protein during pregnancy and nursing.

  • Her body needs more protein when it is chronically stressed by everything that comes with raising a family today.

  • Protein helps regulate the insulin and blood sugar levels that are also perturbed by maternal stress.

Nonetheless, in our experience, most mothers do not eat all the protein they should. You can make sure you are getting what you need by eating more of these foods:

  • Lean meat - Most mothers - especially when nursing or pregnant - seem to need animal-based protein (though some do fine with a vegetarian diet). Lean meats help counteract the increased risk of weight gain and cardiovascular disease after children, plus reduce the toxic loading on your already burdened body, since toxins concentrate in animal fats. Organic meats are safest of all and increasingly available. In particular, if you eat liver - a great source of iron - be sure to get it organic since toxins are concentrated in that organ. If you're looking for convenience, many health food stores sell different kinds of tasty "jerkies" made from beef or turkey, but without any artificial chemicals.

  • Fish - If you can, minimize fish at the top of the ocean food chain - like tuna, shark, or swordfish - because mercury and other toxins increase as you move up the food chain. Salmon is a good alternative, plus it contains high levels of the essential fatty acids (EFA's) every mother needs (see below for more on EFA's). You can also find salmon jerky in some health food stores.

  • Eggs - You may have avoided eggs because of concerns about cholesterol, but recent studies have shown that eggs do not increase the risk of heart disease, and in fact they may raise the level of good, HDL cholesterol. Try to get eggs from free range hens on a healthy diet; your farmer's market may have eggs that are really fresh. If you're in a hurry, you can hard boil eggs in advance and eat one or two at breakfast.

  • Nuts - You can nibble on nuts during the day; almonds are particularly high in protein. Or you can easily create your own customized trail mix, and kids often like to help: just combine your favorite nuts with some non-sulfered dried fruit. Nut butters are also delicious. We suggest you try almond or sesame butter instead of peanut butter since many people are allergic or sensitive to peanuts. Almond butter on a rice cake topped with apple slices is a delicious and healthy breakfast.

  • Hummus - This Middle Eastern food is made from chickpeas. You can buy it in most supermarkets or even make your own. Spread it on crackers for a super-convenient, high-protein snack.

  • Protein shakes - Just put the mix in a blender with juice, milk, or soymilk, and perhaps some fresh fruit, and voila!, you've got an instant high-protein snack or even the better part of a meal. If you can, get a mix without any artificial ingredients. Of course, don't rely on these shakes as your main source of protein since they usually contain just one type. And since we recommend minimizing your overall intake of sugars, try diluting fruit juice or using other liquids.

  • Soy (beans, tofu, soy flour, soy milk) - Soybeans are high in protein, and they may also help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. You can add soybeans to stews or soups, or toss in some tofu chunks to your stirfry or casseroles. In your baking, you could experiment with replacing half or more of the wheat flour with soy flour. Soymilk comes in many flavors, and you may find that your children really like it; the small packs that come with a straw don't need refrigeration and are a great source of quick protein and nutrition for kids on the go.

  • Combining vegetarian foods - If you eat vegetarian, as each of us have done at different times, you probably know about using food combinations (like rice and beans) for maximum protein (Diet for a Small Planet offers a good introduction to this subject). Since meat is the only real source of iron in the diet, a vegetarian mother should usually take iron as part of a good, daily supplement.

Milk, cheese, and yogurt are also good protein sources. But they're best used in moderation because many people - especially those whose ancestors came from Africa or Asia - have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk, and keeping her gastrointestinal tract in good shape is a top priority for a mother. Another problem with milk products is that calcium and iron interfere with the absorption of each other, one more reason not to have a sweet milkshake with your hamburger. If you have excess mucus, sinus infections, gastrointestinal disturbance, or dark circles under your eyes, we suggest you experiment with a couple of weeks of eating no dairy products and see how you feel. You can try goat milk instead, and you can get a fair amount of calcium in cauliflower, broccoli, peas and beans.

We recommend you try to eat protein at every meal, but especially breakfast. Rather than starting your day by hopping onto the insulin roller-coaster with some sugar and refined flour, try a breakfast with four ounces of protein (ie. two eggs, a piece of lean chicken, a large handful of almonds). If you make morning protein the foundation of your day's nutrition, you'll have less of a midday crash and irritability in the afternoon. As the day goes on, if you want something sweet, have some protein instead, like a handful of almonds, hummus on crackers, or a piece of turkey jerky.

Cut Down on Processed Foods

The essential formula for a mom's long-term health and well-being is profoundly simple: increase the good things (ie. nutrients, rest, support from others) and decrease the bad things (ie. empty calories, toxins, stress). Do this every day - little by little, moment by moment, molecule by molecule - and the benefits add up dramatically: you'll feel better, have more energy, get sick less often, be in a better mood, have more to offer your children and partner, cope better with adversity and hassles, and probably live longer.

This formula is so obvious that everybody knows it's true. The trick is to live it every day and to make the right choices at each little opportunity to get off track. Processed foods are a great example. Tempting as they may be, they completely reverse the formula for maternal well-being: they contain less of the good (nutrients) and more of the bad (artificial chemicals) than healthy and convenient alternatives. There are three kinds of processed foods: refined oils and grains, and packaged foods. Let's see what the problems are with these manufactured foods, and how to replace them in time-saving ways.

Refined oils. Walk through a supermarket, and most of the oils you'll find have been refined. These include hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats (such as Crisco or margarine) and liquid oils that are not clearly marked "unrefined" or "virgin" (as in olive oil). Refining takes out vitamin C and lecithin, and creates the trans-fatty acids that have been implicated in cardiovascular disease and other health conditions. Instead, use virgin olive oil or other, unrefined oils, and judicious amounts of real butter.

Refined grains. Besides converting quickly to sugar and jolting your insulin, refined grains lack the nutrients contained in the portion that was hulled away, including B-vitamins and fiber. Although some refined grain products are "enriched" by adding back a few vitamins, the complete array of micronutrients is never restored. B-vitamins help us cope with stress and maintain our energy, so they're particularly important for a mother. And since a mom carries a heightened risk for gastrointestinal disturbance, she's wise to consume fiber for digestive regularity, absorbing toxins, and decreasing risk for colon cancer. It's easy to replace white rice with brown, and refined flours with good-tasting whole wheat pastry flour, rice flour, or soy flour. Since many people have an allergy or sensitivity to the gluten in wheat, you might like to try rice, quinoa, soy, or corn flour as good tasting alternatives.

Packaged foods. Most packaged foods - such as breakfast cereals, donuts, chips, TV dinners, macaroni and cheese, or canned goods - are loaded with white flour, hydrogenated oils, salt, or artificial colors and preservatives. Many essential nutrients have also been stripped away during manufacturing. Happily, health food stores are increasingly carrying packaged foods made from organic ingredients and whole grains, without artificial ingredients. You can also prepare a quick bite for yourself or the kids without resorting to prepackaged "snack packs." It's easy to buy a week's worth of mini carrots, whole grain rolls or pretzels, dried fruits or nuts, package them in plastic bags or containers, and grab them in the morning on your way out the door.

Get Your Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids (EFA's) are "good fats" needed for the membranes of your cells and a healthy heart, and they comprise 60% of your brain. Unfortunately, they are often deficient in mothers, since they are drawn on heavily to grow a baby during pregnancy, and breast milk is loaded with them. Increasing your EFA's can help prevent cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, diabetes and depression - all of which are at increased risk for a mom.

These oils are called essential because they cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed through foods or supplements. There are two types of EFA's, Omega-3 and Omega-6. Since the typical person today eats way too few Omega-3 oils, and often too many Omega-6's, you should particularly look for ways to increase your Omega-3's. Omega-3 oils are found in flax seed, walnuts, unrefined flax or canola oil, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout or sardines. Omega-6's are in unrefined safflower, sunflower, soybean and sesame oils.

You can use unrefined flax or canola oils in salad dressings, but frying with them destroys the EFA's. Or eat Omega-3 rich fish; they don't need to be sushi, since cooking (especially poaching) isn't hot enough to be a problem. You could also grind flax seeds in a coffee grinder and add the flakes to baked goods or sprinkle them over a salad. Flax seeds provide excellent fiber and other nutrients in addition to Omega-3 oils, but be sure to keep drinking a reasonable amout of water to avoid feeling clogged up.

If your diet doesn't include large amounts of EFA-rich foods (like fish almost daily), consider supplements available at any health food store and many supermarkets. (The blood thinning effect of fish oils is usually good for the cardiovascular system, much like an aspirin a day. But if you are on a blood thinning medication, or have a bleeding disorder, please consult with your doctor before supplementing EFA's.) Fish or flax oil will give you the Omega-3's. Primrose or borage oils provide Omega-6's; in general, supplement Omega-3's in a three-to-one ratio to Omega-6's. Daily suggested doses are given on the labels, and you can experiment with increasing that amount by up to 50% and see if it helps.

Take High Potency Multi-Vitamin and Multi-Mineral Supplements

In addition to eating a well-balanced diet, we recommend you take a good vitamin/mineral supplement for several reasons:

  • The best sources of nutrients are always fresh, whole foods. Nonetheless, in real life, not some textbook, you probably rely on quick snacks, meals on the run, and processed foods that lack the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA's) of all the nutrients you need.

  • The RDA's are the minimum necessary to prevent diseases of nutritional deficiency, not necessarily what promotes long-term health and well-being. For example, the amount of vitamin C that prevents scurvy is less than that which maximizes lifetime cardiovascular health. Similarly, a growing body of research has substantiated the benefits of above-RDA levels of various nutrients for inflammation, autoimmune diseases, heart attack, stroke, depression, and Alzheimer's disease.

  • Even as a minimum condition, we think you need more than the standard RDA's, anyway, since growing and nursing a baby are nutrient-draining, hard work and stress require extra nutrients, and the GI disturbance common among mothers impairs absorption. Building up nutritional reserves is also an insurance policy against future days of high stress or poor nutrition.

  • By their nature, micronutrients help bodily processes go well. These molecular helping hands may help protect a vulnerable mother from the widespread artificial chemicals that tend to make things go badly.

While you are pregnant, breastfeeding, and for at least a year after weaning, you should continue taking your prenatal vitamin/mineral supplements, or an equivalent alternative. Make sure these contain iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium and chromium. You may need to add magnesium (400 mg) and calcium (1000 mg) in separate pills to get the appropriate amounts each day. Of course, supplements are no substitute for a balanced diet or medical care.

After this period, keep taking a high potency, vitamin/mineral supplement from a reputable company, although it no longer needs to be "prenatal." Supplements vary in their quality, so you should ask a knowledgeable professional or staff person at a health food store about the brands available. Take a look at the label on the bottle to see if most of the minerals are amino acid chelated (which aids absorption), indicated by the name of the mineral followed by a word ending in -ate, such as citrate, aspertate, malate, gluconate or picolate; chelated minerals are also a sign of a quality supplement from a good company. If you can't get iron in a chelated form, look for ferrous - not ferric - sulfate, fumorate or gluconate.

Unfortunately, there is no way that all the micronutrients you need can fit into a single supplement smaller than a hefty marble. You just have to get in the habit of taking a few pills a couple of times each day. It takes less time than brushing your teeth, and it is at least as important for your health in the long run.

A Mother's Daily Recipe for Good Nutrition

Gather a variety of mainly organic and unprocessed foods.

Add several servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Combine with at least four servings of protein and six cups of water.

Spice with essential fatty acids and a good multivitamin/multimineral supplement.

Use sweets sparingly: no more than one a day.

Take an extra moment to savor and enjoy your meal.

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