Based on extensive research over the past few years, I’ve developed a list of some of the most powerful and beneficial superfoods to support fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding. These are the top 13 foods I encourage my clients to make a special effort to include in their diet on a regular basis:
1. Wild salmon/sardines
Wild caught salmon and sardines both provide phenomenal levels of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA. These nutrients are crucial to support the baby’s brain development as well as mom’s 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. Aim for 2 meals per week of these powerfully beneficial fish.
Avoid albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, big eye 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
Grass-fed butter provides several vital nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy and enrich breast milk. First of all, it’s a wonderful 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 is crucial to support healthy thyroid function (which can be depleted during pregnancy, leading to long term metabolism challenges), and it facilitates healthy development of the baby’s vision, heart and major blood vessels.
You might be wondering if the grass-fed qualifier is important. Yes! Cows fed their natural diet of grasses produce a far more nutritious butter than grain-fed dairy cows. Other important nutrients we obtain from grass-fed butter include vitamin D, vitamin K, iodine, and selenium. A commonly available brand is Kerrygold Irish Butter. The richer yellow color indicates a more nutritious butter (similar to the dark orange yolks of farm raised eggs versus supermarket eggs). Most dairy intolerant individuals can eat butter (milk fat) without a problem because it’s the sugar (lactose) and the proteins (caseins and whey proteins) 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 so you are left with pure butter fat (+ fat soluble vitamins), and none of the sugars or allergens. Ghee is also a superior cooking oil as it has high smoke point – a great, nutritious alternative to vegetable oils for high heat cooking.
3. Eggs: whole, pasture-raised
Eggs have gotten a bad rap off and on for decades. Much of the fear was based on bad science, which has since been thoroughly 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 the 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 nutritious, protein-rich snacks 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, high omega-3 grains are a good 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 important to keep oxygen flowing to the baby and placenta. It also keeps your energy up and helps ward off infection. Iron-rich red meat helps 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
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 come 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 pepper packs less than one gram of sugar as opposed to 12 grams of sugar in an orange. Red bell peppers are second, and green peppers are third, providing almost twice as much vitamin C as an orange.
6. Dark, leafy greens
A star in this category is spinach – rich in folate, vitamin A, iron, vitamin C, vitamin K and magnesium. Kale is also a winner. Although kale provides less folate and magnesium than spinach, it boasts more calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin K. Rotate through a variety of leafy greens and incorporate them into meals on a daily basis: toss them in a salad, use the leaves as a bed for your protein course (wild salmon filet served on a bed of wilted spinach), sauté the greens in coconut or olive oil with garlic & onion, or add greens to any soup, omelet or savory dish. Some of my top picks: spinach, kale, microgreens (all varieties), arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, Swiss and rainbow chard, and Boston (butter head) lettuce. Although not terribly leafy, broccoli and broccoli rabe are also packed with nutrients that do baby & body good.
7. Organic chicken liver
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 healthy development of the baby’s spine and nervous system. Crucial during pregnancy, but folate is also an important 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 is advised to take a daily folate supplement to ensure healthy neurological development when they do achieve a pregnancy, and food sources of folate further nourish your body to support an optimal conception environment.
8. Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles)
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, vitamin C in cabbage for instance, 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 the baby’s immune and digestive systems with a strong start as baby will be populated with mom’s healthy flora through both the birth process 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 it’s 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
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 coconut has tremendous immune boosting benefits for both mom and baby, and it helps facilitate healthy digestion for baby. It has antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Organic, extra virgin coconut oil is best. Avoid any oil that is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Many supermarkets and natural food stores carry excellent coconut oils, but you can also order it from Amazon.com if your local market doesn’t carry it.
Research demonstrates the amount of lauric acid available in a lactating woman’s beast 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 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 an excellent 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 hot water, use it to roast vegetables, or simply eat a teaspoonful on a square of dark chocolate. Naturally solid at room temperature, it’s also an excellent fat for baking. In addition to its nutritional benefits as a wholesome food, you can also use it topically. It’s a nourishing moisturizer for the whole family.
10. Soup or broth
When it comes to soup, broth or stock, homemade is best. However, there are also healthy natural brands available, and many good delis or supermarkets sell their house made chicken broth or other 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, especially if MSG (monosodium glutamate) is among them.
Animal based stock (chicken, beef, fish) provides 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
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 baby. The fat in yogurt is nutritious and it 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!
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.
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
Chia seeds are very high in plant based omega-3s and fiber, which can come in especially helpful 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 simply 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 on amazon.com if you can’t find them locally.
Coconut Chia Pudding (serves 8)
- 2 1/2 cups whole, organic coconut milk (Native Forest recommended)
- 1/3 cup chia seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon all natural maple syrup or rapadura (unrefined) sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
- Fresh raspberries to garnish
Stir together coconut milk, chia seeds, vanilla, maple syrup and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Refrigerate overnight.
When ready to serve, stir well before spooning into serving bowls. Add an extra drizzle of coconut milk if desired. Top each serving with a sprinkle of cinnamon, unsweetened coconut flakes and fresh raspberries. Enjoy!
Although some of the above super foods are less common in our modern day diet and somewhat of an acquired taste (chicken liver, for instance), I’ve found that the healthiest foods are truly the most delicious and deeply satisfying. I delight in the opportunity to provide a healthy, nutritious start for our family, and I sincerely hope I’ve inspired you to explore a few new foods to enrich the health and well-being of both you and your baby.