|“Nourishing the Life Within” Oil painting by Pam England copyright 2016|
Alora called me for a consultation because she was concerned that, due to nausea in the first trimester, she had lost over 20 pounds. Her husband grew concerned because she was “eating like a bird,” nibbling on small amounts of food. When she asked her midwife for advice, she quickly offered blanket assurance that her “baby was fine, it is still small and doesn’t need much nutrition yet, and your blood work looks great!” Sadly, the midwife never asked Alora what she was eating, how much, and did not counsel on remedies to counter morning sickness. Blood work can rule out anemia but it can’t assess the growth and development of the placenta or fetus.
Routine prenatal care should include communication with a pregnant woman about her diet in each trimester, beginning in the first trimester “to prevent undesired birth outcomes and their immediate and long-term consequences on health and development.”1
During our session I explained, “You’re not just growing a baby in there; you are also growing his or her placenta. Your baby and placenta are not desert air plants that can survive without soil or water for six to eight months! You have to feed your placenta in the first trimester and throughout pregnancy so that it can feed your baby. Has anyone told you about how your placenta grows and what foods it needs to be healthy?” She was eager to learn.
The placenta is an amazing organ. Its highly vascular network transfers oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby, and produces four hormones to sustain the pregnancy. It grows from the baby’s embryonic cells; some cultures refer to the placenta as “brother” or “sister” and after birth, treat it respectfully with rituals. By the end of the first trimester, the complex vascular structure of your baby’s placenta is formed, but it still continues to grow with your baby until about 34 weeks. When you eat well throughout pregnancy your placenta and baby thrive. At birth, the placenta will weigh one to one-and-a-half pounds.
“The ability of the fetus to grow and thrive in utero depends on the placental function.”2
Multiple studies have shown that placental growth and weight are strictly dependent on maternal nutrition. A healthy size placenta has good blood flow and capacity to transfer sufficient oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby. The weight of a placenta directly correlates to maternal weight gain. When a mother loses weight or her weight gain is low in the first trimester, the placenta will be significantly smaller by 20 weeks’ gestation and have inadequate vascularity.3 When a placenta is malnourished and underdeveloped in the first half of pregnancy, the baby may be smaller for gestational age in the second half of pregnancy and when it is born.4 Other causes for placental insufficiency include smoking, drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs including marijuana, immune disorders, and diabetes.5
Placental insufficiency means the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the baby is compromised. Placental dysfunction is associated with placental abruption, preterm labor, intrauterine growth restriction, small for gestational age infants, and stillbirth, Placental insufficiency in labor manifests as fetal distress (decelerations in the baby’s heart rate) and may necessitate induction or cesarean surgery.6
“We studied 787 pregnant women and their newborns from a Spanish cohort study.Clara L. Rodriguez-Bernal, et. al.7
The objective was to assess the effect of diet quality during the first trimester of pregnancy.
A positive association was observed between diet quality and newborn weight and length.
A high-quality diet in the first trimester of pregnancy is associated with healthy birthweight and reducing fetal growth restriction.”
It’s never too late to start eating healthy in pregnancy. But, don’t wait until a preventable complication appears, such as the baby growing too slowly, to start eating well. Keep in mind that the placenta is mature at 34 weeks, and even if you begin eating better then, the placenta can’t recover from lost growth and development. Technology and birth attendants can measure the baby’s growth with ultrasound and monitor the heart rate; NICU can treat babies born early or small, but you have a magical power too! You can feed your baby right from the start.
Five Foods to Grow a Happy Healthy Placenta in Your First Trimester
Your first task of motherhood is to eat healthy in pregnancy in the first trimester. You need to eat well, but you don’t need to eat the higher protein and calorie prenatal diet until 20 weeks. If you are busy working or going to school, include the following nutritious foods for breakfast and to bring along with you to eat during your busy day.
Placentas thrive on eggs! Eggs are a good source of high-quality protein—7 grams—and they contain all the amino acids, plus more than a dozen vitamins and minerals, including choline, which is good for your baby’s brain development. A good source of iron, too.
- Sweet Potatoes for a Sweet Baby
Sweet potatoes, one of the best foods you can eat to build a healthy placenta, are loaded with fiber, potassium, iron, and vitamin A. The supply of vitamin A to the placenta is crucial for developing the baby’s eyes, bones, and skin.
“Nuts nourish the placenta with healthy fats, protein, fiber, and magnesium. High levels of magnesium reduce the risk of premature labor and are crucial to the baby’s developing nervous system.” Nuts are a delicious snack for working or hiking moms.
- Green vegetables
“The recommended intake of iron almost doubles during pregnancy. As such, iron-rich foods such as spinach, broccoli, and kale are crucial during pregnancy. Low iron levels could result in a deficiency and hinder the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to the placenta.”
Greek yogurt is a delicious, creamy superfood; it has more protein than regular yogurt. One-half cup of Greek yogurt has 12 grams of protein (double the amount in regular yogurt and equivalent to three ounces of red meat). It contains microbiota (bacteria), aids digestion, and supports gut health. It’ll strengthen your bones and your baby’s too. As a rich source of calcium and zinc, yogurt provides many benefits for a healthy placenta. In particular, Greek yogurt is a superfood to maintain a healthy placenta. Enjoy Greek yogurt for breakfast with fruit or cereal; add honey and nuts.
- Clara L. Rodriguez-Bernal, et. al., (June 2010). Diet quality in early pregnancy and its effects on fetal growth outcomes: the Infancia y Medio Ambiente (Childhood and Environment) Mother and Child Cohort Study in Spain. American Journal of Nutrition, 19:6. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/91/6/1659/4597271
2. Abubakar A Panti, et.al., The relationship between the weight of the placenta and birth weight of the neonate in a Nigerian Hospital. Nigeria Medical Journal. 2012 Apr-Jun; 53(2): 80–84. doi: 10.4103/0300-1652.103547
3. M. Thame, C. Osmond, F. Bennett, et al. (2004). Fetal growth is directly related to maternal anthropometry and placental volume. Eur J Clin Nutr 58,894–900. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601909 https://www.nature.com/articles/1601909
4. Janna L. Morrison and Timothy R Regnault (2016, June). Nutrition in Pregnancy: Optimising Maternal Diet and Fetal Adaptations to Altered Nutrient Supply. Nutrients. 8(6): 342. doi: 10.3390/nu8060342
5. R. Collin Carter, et.al., (2016). Alcohol, Methamphetamine, and Marijuana Exposure Have Distinct Effects on the Human Placenta. Wiley Online Library. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.13022
6. Jaimie E. Wardinger and Shashikanth Ambati (2021). Placental Insufficiency. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK563171/
7. Clara L. Rodriguez-Bernal, et. al.
8. Cells 4Life (Feb 4 2020). “What to Eat for a Healthy Placenta.”