During pregnancy, it’s important to eat as healthfully as possible to stay energized and nourish your developing baby-to-be.
You might have heard about the benefits of the paleo diet, or eating “caveman style” by following the habits of your hunter-gatherer ancestors. The paleo diet involves cutting out many farmed and processed foods.
If you’re pregnant, it’s important to limit junk food, take your prenatal vitamins, and eat a variety of healthy foods. But it can be unsafe to start a restrictive diet when you’re expecting. Completely eliminating dairy and carbohydrate energy sources like grains, for example, may be unsafe for your baby-to-be.
Here’s why you might want to hold off on going paleo until after pregnancy.
Risks of the paleo diet when pregnant
There’s little research available about the specific risks and benefits of the paleo diet and pregnancy.
But there have been studies about pregnant women eating high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. These are some of the same basic principles someone on the paleo diet would follow.
A study published in the journal Hypertension found that women who increased their consumption of meat and fish during late pregnancy gave birth to offspring who displayed higher systolic blood pressure later in life.
Other studies have found that eating high amounts of red meat and low amounts of carbohydrates during pregnancy is associated with reduced fetal growth and low birth weight upon delivery. It also may increase cortisol secretion in response to psychological stress when the baby reaches adulthood.
One positive note about the paleo diet is that it doesn’t encourage you to completely eliminate carbohydrates. You can still eat fruits and vegetables, including starchy ones like sweet potatoes, as part of the plan. It also encourages eating healthy fats and grass-fed animal meat. If you’re following the paleo diet during pregnancy, you can reduce the risks associated with high-protein diets by choosing fattier cuts of meat. You’re also encouraged to drink plenty of water. It’s important to stay hydrated during pregnancy.
More studies are needed to assess the short- and long-term health effects of the paleo diet on pregnant women and their babies-to-be.
If you’re already following the paleo diet prepregnancy, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to continue.
What is the paleo diet?
Following the paleo diet means mimicking how hunter-gatherers ate during the Paleolithic period, approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. To state the obvious, there were no grocery stores at the time. The diet relies mainly on what was available before farming and food processing. The acceptable food list varies slightly depending on the source.
Staple paleo foods include:
- lean meats
- vegetables, including starchy tubers and roots
- nuts and seeds
On a paleo diet, you’ll typically avoid all processed foods. Other foods to avoid on a paleo diet include:
- dairy products
- refined sugar
- white potatoes
Benefits of the paleo diet
If you’re not pregnant, benefits of the paleo diet may include:
- reduced inflammation
- weight loss
- improved glucose tolerance
- increased appetite control
While some of these may seem positive, dieting to lose weight during pregnancy can be dangerous, according to the American Pregnancy Association. If you were at a healthy weight before pregnancy, you’ll want to gain 25–35 pounds over the next nine months. You might need to gain more or less, depending if you were overweight, obese, or underweight before pregnancy.
Carbohydrates are also an important source of energy during pregnancy. Pregnant women need 6 to 11 servings of carbohydrates each day. They provide you with the energy you need, while offering:
- B vitamins
- a variety of minerals
One exception to the carbohydrate requirements during pregnancy would be if you were diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your diet and keep your blood sugar in check.
Should you try the paleo diet during pregnancy?
More research is needed to assess the risks and benefits of the paleo diet during pregnancy. But experts stress the importance of eating a variety of nutritious foods until you deliver.
Instead of following a restrictive diet, try to eat a variety of healthy items from the basic food groups at each meal. The basic food groups are:
- proteins and legumes
- dairy, or calcium-rich nondairy alternatives
- healthy fats
Despite pregnancy cravings, try to limit junk food, fast food, and sweets as much as possible.
You and your baby will benefit from a healthy diet that includes:
- healthy fats
- vitamins and minerals
- folic acid
Carbohydrates are important during pregnancy. They provide you with the energy you need and give you vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Replace processed carbs with:
- whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereal
- beans and other legumes
- sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables
- brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains
Dairy products can also be an important part of a healthy pregnancy diet. They provide your body with calcium, which your baby-to-be needs to properly develop their bones and teeth. If you are lactose-intolerant, have a milk allergy, or choose not to consume dairy, you should eat calcium-rich foods daily like legumes, kale, sardines with bones, broccoli, and dark leafy greens. If you’re worried you aren’t getting enough calcium, talk to your doctor about a pregnancy-safe supplement.
If you intend to follow a paleo-style diet while pregnant, choose fattier meats and fish, add more plant fats, and consume root vegetables daily to reduce the risks of eating too much protein. Add in legumes too, which can help you reach your folate requirements during pregnancy. Make sure to take a prenatal vitamin daily.
Instead of following a strict diet like paleo during pregnancy, aim to eat a variety of healthy, whole foods at each meal and avoid a high-protein diet. Replace your refined grains with whole-grain versions, and limit sugary drinks and snacks. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Talk to your doctor and dietitian about your daily dietary needs and requirements for each trimester.