The benefits of superfoods are endless; they are packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants that improve your body and mind. Pairing a nutritious diet with a gentle and effective exercise routine enriches the health and well-being of both you and your baby, which is why I developed a research-based list of superfoods that support fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
This is much more than a pregnancy diet; it is a list of healthy foods that I encourage my clients to eat often.
1. Wild Salmon/Sardines
Benefits: Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA)
Wild-caught salmon and sardines provide phenomenal levels of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA. These nutrients are crucial to support your baby’s brain development as well as your mood, immunity, and overall health. To maximize these benefits while minimizing exposure to mercury and other toxins, choose small, cold-water fish that are wild-caught and lower on the food chain. Best choices include salmon, sardines, anchovies, scallops, shrimp, cod, catfish, tilapia, and herring. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week, so aim for two and enjoy the powerful benefits of this healthy-fat packed protein.
Tip: Avoid albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, marlin, sea bass, swordfish, tilefish, shark, and all types of mackerel. Canned light tuna is better than most other types of tuna but should be eaten in moderation
2. Grass-fed Butter
Benefits: Vitamin A, D, K, Iodine, and Selenium
Grass-fed butter is a powerful addition to both your pregnancy and breastfeeding diet. It provides several vital nutrients that support a healthy pregnancy and enrich breast milk. First of all, it’s a fantastic source of highly absorbable vitamin A (that’s completely safe). The mention of vitamin A can make some pregnant women nervous because of birth defects associated with mega doses of synthetic vitamin A (which is truly toxic). But obtaining natural vitamin A from whole foods supports healthy thyroid function (which can be depleted during pregnancy, leading to long term metabolism challenges), and the development of your baby’s vision, heart, and major blood vessels.
You might be wondering if the grass-fed qualifier is essential. Yes! Cows fed their natural diet produce far more nutritious butter than grain-fed dairy cows. Other vital nutrients we obtain from grass-fed butter include vitamin D, vitamin K, iodine, and selenium.
Most dairy intolerant individuals can eat butter (milk fat) without a problem because it’s the sugar (lactose) and the proteins (caseins and whey) that cause reactions. However, if you’re highly sensitive to dairy and nervous about introducing butter, consider adding grass-fed ghee (clarified butter) to your diet. Ghee has been purified to remove all traces of milk proteins, leaving you with pure butterfat (+ fat-soluble vitamins), and none of the sugars or allergens. Ghee is also a great cooking oil with a high smoke point and is a great, nutritious alternative to vegetable oils for high heat cooking.
3. Eggs: whole, pasture-raised
Benefits: Omega-3s, Choline, and Healthy Natural Cholesterol
Eggs have gotten a bad rap off and on for decades. Much of the fear was based on bad science, which has since been debunked. Nevertheless, many people still shy away from egg yolks. The truth is, egg yolks are far more valuable to you and your growing baby than the whites! The yolks provide essential nutrients like omega-3s, choline, and healthy natural cholesterol important for your baby’s developing brain and nervous system. In fact, we can’t fully absorb the protein in the egg white without the nutrients in the accompanying yolk! Nature wisely delivers the most valuable combination: the yolk and the white together. Enjoy 1-2 whole eggs several times a week – incorporate them into meals and snacks. To make it easy, hard boil a dozen eggs on the weekend, and you’ll have them conveniently available throughout the week as a nutritious, protein-rich snack or a quick breakfast on the go. Buy the best quality you can. The most nutritious are farm fresh, pasture-raised eggs (from chickens that roam freely, eating grass and bugs and worms). Eggs from chickens fed organic, and high omega-3 grains are an excellent second choice.
4. Red Meat, especially grass-fed (beef, lamb, bison, etc.)
Red meats offer a highly bioavailable source of iron, and many, many women struggle to maintain adequate iron levels as blood volume surges during pregnancy. Iron is essential to keep oxygen flowing to the baby and the placenta. It also keeps your energy up, wards off infection, and helps to replenish and nourish mothers during the postpartum recovery process. Again, grass-fed meat is ideal, but buy the best you can afford. At the very least, choose natural meats free of added hormones and antibiotics. As you might have heard, vitamin C aids iron absorption, so top your burger with hot chili peppers or enjoy bell pepper on the side when eating steak.
5. Bell Pepper
Benefits: Vitamin C
After chili peppers and guava, bell peppers have a higher concentration of vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable. They pack way more vitamin C than citrus fruits, leafy greens, or strawberries. And they’re very low in sugar. Color makes a difference in the vitamin C content of bell peppers. Yellow comes out on top, with a whopping 341mg (569% DV) per pepper. That’s over 4x the amount of vitamin C in a navel orange, and an entire bell pepper packs less than one gram of sugar as opposed to the 12 grams of sugar found in an orange. Red bell peppers come in second, and green third, providing almost twice as much vitamin C as an orange.
6. Dark, Leafy Greens
Benefits: Vitamin C, A, K, and Calcium
Spinach is an important superfood to include in your diet and supports fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. It’s rich in folate, vitamin A, iron, vitamin C, vitamin K, and magnesium. Kale is also a beneficial superfood, providing less folate and magnesium than spinach, but boasting more calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin K.
Adding leafy greens into your diet is easy; toss them in a salad, use the leaves as a bed for your protein course, sauté them in coconut or olive oil with garlic & onion, or add greens to any soup, omelet or savory dish. It’s important to consume them daily, so try a rotation of spinach, kale, microgreens (all varieties), arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, Swiss and rainbow chard, and Boston (butterhead) lettuce. And remember, although not leafy, broccoli and broccoli rabe are also packed with nutrients that do baby & body good.
7. Organic Chicken Liver
Benefits: Folate, B-12, Iron, Zinc and Vitamin A
While it’s true that spinach is a good source of folate (1 ounce of spinach delivers 54 mcg of folate), chicken liver is unparalleled in its folate-packed punch! One ounce of chicken liver provides 157 mcg of folate – 3x the amount in an ounce of spinach. Consider adding a few ounces of organic chicken liver to your diet once a week. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin B-12, iron, zinc, and vitamin A. If you’re wondering what folate is and why it’s so important, you might recognize it as folic acid, the oxidized synthetic compound used in supplements and food fortification. Folate (or folic acid) is imperative for the healthy development of the baby’s spine and nervous system. Crucial during pregnancy, folate is also an essential nutrient throughout infancy and beyond. Including whole food sources of natural folate, which tends to be more completely metabolized than the synthetic version, can help ensure your growing baby is well nourished. Any women hoping to become pregnant are advised to take a daily folate supplement to ensure healthy neurological development when they do achieve pregnancy, and natural sources of folate further nourish your body to support an optimal conception environment.
8. Fermented Vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles)
Benefits: Enzymes, Vitamin B, C, Omega-3, Probiotics
Traditional Lacto-fermentation yields beneficial enzymes, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics. This makes traditionally fermented vegetables nutritional powerhouses. In fact, the nutrients already present in these vegetables, for instance, the vitamin C found in cabbage, becomes more bioavailable when the cabbage is fermented to form sauerkraut or kimchee. The probiotics inherent in fermented vegetables help fortify you against yeast infections, a common nuisance during pregnancy. And they help provide your baby’s immune and digestive systems with a strong start, thanks to the healthy flora that will transfer through delivery and breastfeeding.
Many women crave sour tastes during pregnancy – satisfy those cravings with Lacto-fermented vegetables. Bubbies is an excellent brand for pickles and sauerkraut and is available in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets.
Tip: Avoid pickled vegetables that include vinegar on the list of ingredients – vinegar offers a shortcut that bypasses much of the value imparted by the traditional fermentation process.
9. Coconut oil
Benefits: Lauric Acid
Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a rare medium-chain fatty acid that’s also a primary component of breast milk. The lauric acid in coconuts has tremendous immune-boosting benefits for both you and your baby and helps facilitate healthy digestion for your baby. It also has antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties.
Research demonstrates the amount of lauric acid available in a lactating woman’s breast milk increases to 3x her baseline level when she adds food rich in lauric acid to her diet. In fact, including coconut oil in a single meal can boost lauric acid levels in breast milk for 1-3 days, with the peak increase occurring in the first 10 hours. Breast milk is always an ideal food for your baby, but this data suggests you can make it even more profoundly beneficial when you eat nutrient-rich foods like coconut oil. In terms of benefits to mom (breastfeeding or not), coconut oil is a great fat to promote healthy body composition and sustained energy levels.
If you don’t already incorporate coconut oil into your diet, here are a few ideas: use coconut oil to cook an omelet or sauté greens (the natural sweetness of coconut oil cuts the bitterness of many varieties of greens). Add a spoonful of coconut oil to hot cereal like oatmeal, stir it into herbal tea or a cup of warm water, use it to roast vegetables, or eat a teaspoonful on a square of dark chocolate. Also, coconut oil is an excellent fat for baking and works as a nourishing moisturizer (when used topically) for the whole family.
When shopping for coconut oil, look for the organic, extra virgin kind, and make sure to avoid any oil that is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Many supermarkets and natural food stores offer excellent coconut oils, but if your local store doesn’t carry it, you can also order it online.
10. Soup or broth
Benefits: Minerals, Amino Acids, and Vitamins
When it comes to soup, broth, or stock, homemade is best. However, there are nutritious natural brands you can find at the supermarket and some delis and grocers that sell their house-made broths and stocks at a reasonable price. Aim for products with a short list of ingredients that are easily recognizable (like chicken, carrots, celery, onion, thyme, and salt). Avoid products with long lists of ingredients.
Animal-based stocks (chicken, beef, and fish) provide a rich array of minerals, amino acids, and vitamins that leach from the bones, meat, and vegetables into the broth. I enjoy a cup of homemade broth with dinner several days a week, and sometimes I’ll sip it as an appetizer to warm me up and satisfy hunger as I prepare dinner. It’s very nourishing, and it provides many of the raw materials to help your baby grow strong and healthy while boosting your immune system. Soups are also terrific for guarding hydration levels during pregnancy and breastfeeding! High in water and mineral salts, they support healthy hydration and mineral balance.
11. Whole milk yogurt
Benefits: Probiotics, Calcium, Protein
As a fermented food, yogurt shares many of the same beneficial properties as fermented vegetables. On top of the probiotic benefits, yogurt also dishes a hearty serving of calcium and protein. Whole milk yogurts are the most nourishing – they retain their naturally occurring, fat-soluble vitamins (A & D). In contrast, the skimming process strips low fat and skim dairy products of their fat-soluble vitamins. Companies are then required to add synthetic versions of those vitamins into the product. Natural, unprocessed whole foods are always better for both you and your baby. The fat in yogurt is nutritious and helps blunt blood sugar response, keeping your energy levels stable.
Top a bowl of yogurt with a handful of nuts (whatever variety you like) and berries. A delicious, nutrient-packed breakfast, snack, or dessert! And, in case you’re wondering, grass-fed yogurt is indeed ideal if you can find it. If not, choose organic or at least hormone-free yogurts.
Benefits: Fiber, Antioxidants, Vitamin C
Raspberries are high in fiber, low in sugar and rich in a wide array of antioxidants, including vitamin C. Raspberries have anti-inflammatory properties, protect healthy cell growth, and promote healthy blood sugar control. They add delicious flavor and delightful color when sprinkled on yogurt, oatmeal, or a salad. Enjoy a handful of fresh raspberries drizzled with cream or full-fat coconut milk as a luxurious dessert or afternoon snack.
13. Chia seeds
Benefits: Omega-3s Fiber, Vitamin B, and Calcium
Chia seeds are very high in plant-based omega-3s and fiber, which is especially beneficial during pregnancy. They’re also a good source of B vitamins, calcium, and a variety of other trace nutrients that help support bone health. As an added benefit, they help stabilize blood sugar and are easy to incorporate in a variety of ways. Unlike flax, chia seeds do not need to be refrigerated or ground before eating. You can open the bag and sprinkle chia on salads, yogurt, and virtually any dish you can think of. When mixed with water or other beverages (lemonade, for instance), they form a gel that helps ‘sweep’ the digestive tract and facilitate healthy, regular elimination.
Another delicious option is to make a chia pudding with coconut milk. Native Forest offers an excellent quality organic coconut milk in BPA-free cans (get the whole fat milk – so much of the nutritional value, including lauric acid, is in the fat). Native Forest products are available online if you can’t find them locally.