When I was pregnant, I ate gluten free. Friends were concerned: was I getting enough of the right nutrients for my baby to grow? Could “not eating carbs” lead to unfavorable pregnancy outcomes?
There are several misconceptions about gluten-free diets that lead people to believe that eating gluten free during pregnancy can be dangerous and should be avoided unless you suffer from Celiac Disease. But I believe that if you do it right, a gluten-free diet can actually help you get all of the necessary prenatal macro- and micro-nutrients, maintain optimal blood sugar levels, and have the energy to remain physically active during pregnancy, if you choose to and your doctor approves.
To help put an end to those myths, here are 5 things you should know about eating gluten free during pregnancy.
1. A gluten-free diet may help you keep gestational diabetes at bay. Yes, pregnant women need carbohydrates! But guess what? If you eat gluten free, you’re likely to consume superior carbohydrates, such as nutrient-dense green vegetables, quinoa, and sweet potato. Breads, cereals, and pastas are high-glycemic, meaning they will raise blood sugar quickly. This can be detrimental for those at risk of gestational diabetes. Gluten-free whole foods offer carbohydrates that will not raise blood sugar excessively and offer a wide variety of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.
2. A gluten-free diet can help you avoid constipation and heartburn during pregnancy. Fiber is a pregnant mama’s best friend. It keeps everything moving through the intestine, helping fight those all-to-common pregnancy symptoms: constipation and heartburn. Many people think that you need to eat whole wheat bread, cereals, and pasta to obtain fiber. But that isn’t the case. In fact, foods such as artichoke heart, raspberries, pears, split peas, lentils, broccoli, flaxseed, and Chia seeds have exponentially higher amounts of fiber per calorie than whole wheat bread.
3. Your baby will get the folic acid it needs. Synthetic folic acid is not the same as folate. For your fetus to reap the benefits of folic acid, your body must convert synthetic folic acid into the biologically functional form 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Many people cannot make this conversion, which may lead to insufficient levels of folic acid for your developing fetus, and folic acid deficiency can lead to serious birth defects. For this reason, you want to get the most natural folate possible, and gluten-free foods like lentils, beans, asparagus, spinach and cauliflower can help you do that!
4. The foods with the best iron are gluten free. When you are expecting, you need more iron than you usually do. But the fortified iron that is found in breads and cereals has an absorption rate that is as little as two percent and does not exceed 20 percent. So instead of going for fortified gluten foods, try clams, chicken, beef eggs and fish, which have an iron absorption rate that ranges from 15 to 35 percent.
5. Opt for natural, unprocessed gluten-free foods to get the most prenatal benefits. Though they are void of gluten, processed gluten-free foods are made with cornstarch, potato flour, and sugar, which can raise blood sugar, even more than gluten-containing items. Also, most processed foods (gluten-free or not) contain unhealthy ingredients and additives like high fructose corn syrup, sugar, xanthan gum, soybean oil, and soy lecithin -- all of which are best to avoid during pregnancy. The healthiest gluten-free diet consists of whole foods that do not have long ingredients lists, such as green vegetables, berries, avocado, eggs, wild salmon, nuts, seeds, quinoa, beans, lentils, and organic meats and poultry.
Keeping these five points in mind will help you have your healthiest gluten-free pregnancy. Whether you decide to completely eliminate or limit gluten from your pregnancy diet, keep a primary rule of thumb in mind--stick to nutrient-dense whole foods. Eating unprocessed meals and snacks, with naturally occurring nutrients and no additives or preservatives, is the best choice for mother and baby.
Aimee Aristotelous is a certified nutritionist, specializing in prenatal dietetics and gluten-free nutrition. She is the author of The Whole Pregnancy: A Complete Nutrition Plan for Gluten-Free Moms to Be.