Did you know? Fat is incredibly important to your baby and your own body during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Decades of “low fat” propaganda from the government and glossy pregnancy magazine articles highlighting that you need “just 300 extra calories a day” have made us terrified of eating anything except boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Unfortunately, a low-fat diet is not just unappealing, it’s downright dangerous to your unborn baby. Here’s why you should give fat a second chance.
Why is Fat Important?
Fat actually plays multiple roles in pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Brain development is arguably one of the most important, so we’ll cover that first.
You’ve probably heard that essential fatty acids (or “EFA’s” – DHA is an example) are very important to the brain development of your baby. This is true, and maternal intake of EFA’s correlates directly with what baby gets during pregnancy and during nursing (via ScienceDirect). You must get these from good fats.
A good intake of EFA’s also correlates strongly with a good birth weight in newborns. It’s not just the essential fatty acids that have this effect, however. Maternal fat stores are vitally important. In fact, studies show that mothers should store up fat during the first and second trimesters. These stores are used during the third trimester, while you’re still pregnant, and during the months of breastfeeding.
Researchers stress that these stores need to be laid down early in pregnancy to be available when they’re needed. Otherwise, infant development (including brain development) is negatively impacted and birth weight is lower (via American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). This has been proven important for mothers carrying just one baby, and it’s almost essential to mothers of multiples. Dr. Barbara Luke of the University Consortium on Multiple Birth has documented that mothers of multiples who gain 20lbs by 20 weeks are far more likely to carry their babies longer and to have significantly higher birthweight than those who don’t (pp. 54-56, When You’re Expecting Twins, Triplets, or Quads). Early pregnancy maternal fat stores are important for all mothers (via Science Direct).
In addition, avoiding “fatty foods” or “cholesterol-rich foods” robs your baby of nutrient-dense foods that contain important substances for brain development. One example of this is egg yolks, which are rich in choline, a critical nutrient for neural development. Many women cut these foods out in attempt to fit into the commonly recommended 25-35lb weight gain.
The quality of your breastmilk is dependent on the amount of fat in your diet. As was noted above, maternal intake of essential fatty acids has a direct impact on the level of EFA’s in breastmilk. You must eat those fats for your baby to get them.
Fat also helps make rich, nourishing milk. Human infants do not need a low-fat diet. About 50-60% of the energy in breastmilk is from fat (measured in kcals; via WAPF). Infants get about 6x the typical adult amount of dietary cholesterol in breast milk (as a side note, dietary cholesterol intake does not scientifically correlate with the amount of arterial cholesterol build-up, read more here). Low-fat diets have been shown to decrease the level of fats in breastmilk essential for infant brain development and growth.
Mothers who struggle with low milk supply often notice they make richer, more abundant milk when they switch to a nutrient-dense diet with plenty of calories. Pumping mothers can actually see the cream portion of their milk increase as they improve the quality of their diet and focus on getting high-quality fats.
Fat is also vital for nutrient absorption. Many, many vitamins are “fat-soluble” meaning your body needs fat to use them. Hormones are all highly dependent on fat (especially cholesterol). Hormones are important to sustaining your pregnancy, and sex hormones are vital for your baby son or baby daughter.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat soluble and all are vital to fetal development. Lack of Vitamin A causes miscarriage and impacts many organ systems in babies who survive low levels. Animal studies have show eye, nose, and dental arch defects. Kidneys and reproductive organ systems are affected, and organs are not properly organized within the body. Vitamin A is responsible for helping organs organize into their correct, asymmetric pattern inside the body, and for organizing the outside of the body into its symmetrical pattern.
Vitamin D is crucial for lung development and for the growth of the skeleton. Vitamin E is necessary for fertility, and scientists believe it’s also critical in establishing proper nutrient transport through the placenta. Vitamin K is not as well studied, but it’s believed that it’s crucial to facial development in the baby. While Vitamin K1 is found in plant sources (such as leafy greens), K2 comes from either fermented foods (like sauerkraut) or grass-fed animal products such as live, egg yolk, butter, and fatty meats. The placenta stores K2 and delivers it to the baby slowly and continuously.
Having all of these nutrients available to your baby is incredibly important (more on vitamins for fetal development). Deficiencies can cause miscarriage and birth defects in babies (chapter 4, Healing Our Children), and mothers may battle health problems and depression. Sticking to a low-fat diet automatically cuts off many of the foods rich in these nutrients, and without fat the body cannot absorb many nutrients that come in vegetables.
It’s possible that maternal diets rich in healthy fats may have protective effects for babies. A childbirth education student recently forwarded me an animal study demonstrating this. Babies born to mothers fed a high fat diet had significantly lower risk of cancer (click for study). Other studies have shown that animal mothers who eat a higher healthy fat pregnancy diet have babies who can enjoy higher-fat diets without negative effects. When mothers ate a low-fat diet during pregnancy, their offspring’s bodies reacted negatively to higher fat and calorie levels, even if the foods were healthy. It seems that depriving a fetal body of rich nutrient levels may cause the body to be programmed in “fat storage” mode for life (click for study).
Zeroing in on Saturated Fat
You may have been nodding your head when I talked about EFA’s – everyone knows they’re good for mothers and babies. But it’s not just the essential fatty acids that your baby needs. Saturated fats (such as butter and coconut oil) are very important. Close to half of human cell membranes are made of saturated fats, and saturated fat is an energy source needed by your rapidly developing baby (in pregnancy and while breastfeeding).
Studies designed to vilify saturated fats for pregnant women have been published several times in recent years, but these studies come with many flaws. In addition to a strong existing bias against saturated fats by both researchers and their funding sources, the studies often involved high amounts of processed ingredients being fed to animal subjects. Purified sugars and starches were fed along with the fats. Human studies are also questionable, with problems being attributed to fat while low levels of vitamins in maternal blood were brushed off as irrelevant to infant problems. Other studies have limited fat along with many other known toxins (such as caffeine and refined foods) while encouraging nutrient-dense foods such as olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, etc. Study authors neglected to determine if the lower fat or the overall improved nutrient-dense diet is what really influenced outcomes.
When you realize all of the important benefits of a diet rich in healthy fats (included some saturated), it’s important to question political and financial motives of studies that completely agree with the popular opinion and corporate interests.
What About the Pregnancy Pounds?
First, it’s important to realize that I’m advocating against a low-fat diet and for a nutrient-dense diet that includes healthy fats of all kinds. I’m not saying your food should be fried, greasy, or dripping in fat. Having said that, you do want to gain a healthy amount of weight in pregnancy.
Decades of studies have shown that pregnancy weight gain fits a pattern. You’ve seen the charts that show a seven pound baby, one pound placenta, etc. But there’s not just an “average” or pattern of baby-related weight. Your own body stores fat and it does so in specific places during pregnancy (one example study: via Science Direct).
Maternal fat stores tend to be on the thighs, and some moms get a “pad” over their tailbone. This thigh-and-bottom region fat is not only normal, it has an important purpose. I discussed studies above that showed that these fat deposits build in the first and second trimester. They’re used in the third trimester, and during breastfeeding. This storage is very important to your body – they’re stores that help you keep up with the incredible energy requirement of both growing an unborn baby and of breastfeeding an infant.
Dr. Barbara Luke encourages mothers of multiples to use a tape measure to record their upper arm measurement each week during pregnancy. It stays about the same throughout the second half of pregnancy (even while you’re gaining weight)! I love this simple tip because it helps women anxious about weight gain to realize that their calories really are going to the baby and towards healthy maternal fat stores.
Extensive observational studies have been done in Third World regions as well as in First World countries that document the effects of low-calorie diets on fetal development. In both regions, babies born to mothers on low-calorie diets have lower birth weights and are more likely to have health problems (including heart disease, stroke, etc. in adulthood). Many moms dismiss these studies because they feel they’re not getting the kind of “famine” diet a mother in Africa may be getting – but the frightening reality is that restricted-calorie pregnancy diets in any country can impact a baby. It’s just not worth the risk (via American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; p. 45 The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care).
The normal maternal fat storage pattern and metabolic “slow-down” experienced during pregnancy and lactation also appear to completely “reset” after a mother weans her baby. In other words, as long as you breastfeed your baby, the normal metabolic changes of pregnancy (including fat storage) are reversed and your body resets to a healthy normal (study here).
It’s also important to look past the physical effects of fat consumption and consider the mental effects. It’s known that babies’ brains hoard DHA while in the womb, taking in up to 10x what the baby actually needs (p. 48 The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care)! This is good for your baby but may have negative effects on you. Your brain needs DHA too, especially for your own emotional well-being. Mothers who eat a diet low in fats may be pre-disposed to postpartum depression.
Fat soluble nutrients are important to your emotional well-being too, and if you’re not getting enough fat to provide those nutrients for your baby, you’re certainly not getting enough for your own brain and body. Lack of these nutrients can also prolong labor and impact how smoothly labor and birth move along (p. 46 The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care).
What Kinds of Fats?
Don’t put down this article and run to the nearest fast food restaurant. You need to get the right kinds of fats, and foods fried in highly processed vegetable oils do not fit that description! You and your baby do need good fats, for all the reasons listed above, but make sure you’re getting the right foods.
A quick question to guide you is: “Is this a type of fat humans have been eating for ages?” If you can answer “yes” that fat is probably good. If the answer is “no” (such as with chemically extracted vegetable oils), those fats are bad for you – maybe even deadly. Here are a few examples of good fats:
Eggs and Egg Yolks
As I noted above, egg yolk is rich in choline, critical for neural development. Egg whites provide a perfect protein. Eggs are also rich in cholesterol which are so important for sex hormones and for hormones that help the body handle stress properly. Folate, biotin, and Vitamins A, D, E, and K2 are also provided by eggs.
Butter provides abundant nutrients, especially when it comes from grass-fed cows. High levels of Vitamins A, D, E, and K2 are complemented by important minerals such as selenium, copper, zinc, and chromium. All are important for brain development. Iodine, important to the thyroid, is also found in butter. AA, or arachidonic acid, is an essential fatty acid needed for healthy skin and intestine development. Butter is rich in AA.
Oily fish provide brain-boosting EFA’s. They’re also a great source of Vitamin D, which is critical to your baby. The Vitamin D in oily fish really complement other nutrient-dense pregnancy foods rich in Vitamin A, such as liver and cod liver oil. A and D have synergistic effects.
Coconut oil has great immune-boosting properties. It also gives energy and helps the body burn off unneeded fat stores. Though you don’t want to limit healthy calories during pregnancy, coconut oil is a rich, satiating fat for cooking or to add into smoothies for an immune-building tropical flavor (my kids love the tiny coconut oil “crystals” that form when it’s added to a cold smoothie, but you may not like it if you’re having texture aversions during pregnancy).
Olive oil, palm oil, avocados, full-fat dairy, and nuts and seeds are other healthy sources of fat to enjoy during pregnancy.
Focus on high-quality protein, salting to taste, and high-quality fats to build an excellent base for your healthy pregnancy diet. Round that out with vitamin and mineral-rich vegetables and some fruits and properly prepared grains. You’ll gain the right amount of weight for yourself and your baby, and you’ll grow a strong, healthy baby. Your nutrient-dense diet will also help your body produce rich, nourishing breastmilk your baby can thrive on.
How have you added healthy fats into your diet?