Our relationship to food is often brought to the surface of our minds during pregnancy. As though there isn’t already enough to worry about--the emotions, the physical discomfort, the impending human to care for--many of us also become increasingly concerned about eating well, gaining weight and dealing with cravings.

As a health coach, I often hear things like: “How will I manage my food issues when I’m expecting?” or “I’d love to work out my food issues before my child arrives [because I don’t want to project those onto her].”

If your relationship with food has ever been a struggle for you, from concerns about your weight or emotional eating to eating disorders, pregnancy can reactivate many of these anxieties. But by digging into what underlies these concerns, we can limit patterns and behaviors that might lead us to unhealthy choices during pregnancy.

Read on for some of the most common questions I receive from my clients, and how you can tackle these if they’re concerns for you.

Is Pregorexia a thing?

Yes, sadly, it is. Pregorexia is a condition wherein an expectant mom limits food intake during pregnancy for fear of gaining weight, often to the detriment of her health and the health of her baby. For someone who fears gaining weight, food can be the mechanism by which they gain control instead: if we eat less, we’re told, we’ll weigh less. This is a pattern most women admit to dabbling in, and we see it often in the dieting world. It becomes especially problematic during pregnancy because food can’t be restricted in the same way: we need to eat to fuel ourselves and to grow baby. Read on for ways to uncover why food and body image feel tough for you and how you can work through it.

I feel guilty when I’m hungry.

Knowing that you may feel hungrier than usual when you’re expecting can be an unpleasant thought, especially if you equate hunger with guilt or weakness. With practice--and consistent positive affirmation--we can relearn that hunger is a natural, appropriate biological sensation: it is a signal of something important (‘You need to eat to survive’), not a reminder of a weakness. Understand that food has a very specific role, particularly during pregnancy, and that the food choices you make will significantly impact your baby’s development. Then respond to your hunger signals with an intention to nourish, not berate, yourself.

I feel like I am addicted to certain foods. I worry this is going to be problematic when I’m expecting and not in control of my emotions or my body.

If you sometimes feel out of control with food, as though you can’t stop eating once you start, you are not alone. We are wired to interpret experiences that ensure our survival (like eating and mating) as most pleasurable. Add cravings or emotional vulnerability to the equation and things get a little more complicated. To ensure eating happens in the most supportive way possible, try:

  • Eat only when you’re hungry. Notice where, when and how intensely you feel hunger and use that to inform your action. The body registers fullness by the amount of change it experiences: if it wasn’t super hungry to begin with, it will need to have more food in order to feel the same amount of shift (and register doneness). When we feel true hunger, we can respond with food and put the body back in balance. If we’re actually tired, upset or in need of movement, we can give the body the non-food nourishment it needs without opening the floodgates for overeating.
  • Identify your trigger foods. Consider taking these out of rotation for a short period to break the habit of overdoing it (as you may know, guilt and bingeing can become quite cyclical). Be prepared by having other healthy alternatives handy. Consider similar tastes, textures and temperatures when finding foods to swap in. By setting clear parameters for yourself, you reduce the number of decisions you might make from an emotional--and otherwise out of control--place.
  • Find someone to hold you accountable. If you’re committed to being good to yourself, have a partner, a coach or a friend to hold you to your commitment. Know that this doesn’t mean restricting your food: it means having support to make the right decision about eating.

I’ve heard that if I crave a certain food, it means my body needs that specific food. If I have cravings for junk, should I indulge?

While it is true that the body signals its needs through cravings, we are not wired to biologically need a Snickers. If you struggle with maintaining reasonable portions with certain foods--especially those hyperpalatables, which are loaded with fat, sugar and salt--keep your distance from them. Consider, though, that your body might be asking for a particular component of that food (Sugar for energy? Fat for rebuilding the nervous system? Protein to build blood cells?). Whenever possible, we want to indulge these cravings with healthy alternatives (think: organic dark chocolate instead of four Snickers bars; whole cultured organic goats milk yogurt instead of Ben and Jerry’s; kale chips instead of the family-sized bag of Lay’s).

However, it’s important to be clear with yourself about why you’re avoiding these types of foods. If you feel like a failure for eating treat foods, regardless of how infrequently it might occur, there might be a deeper emotional connection or self-assessment attached to having/not having these. Be honest with yourself and confront your emotions. Then, feel free to indulge those cravings with healthy alternatives, or forgive yourself when nothing but a burger will do.

How can I become clear on my relationship with food before my little one arrives?

Spend some honest introspective time with yourself. Using a journal, or during a meditation practice, ask: Why am I afraid of gaining weight? What will it mean if my body changes? How will this change who I am? Do I define myself exclusively by my size and my appearance?

For so many women, we feel our bodies define us, especially in relation to each other. To think that our very defining factor is about to change can be terrifying: who are we if not an effortless Size 2? I challenge you to dig into the other aspects of you that make you unique. Allow yourself to acknowledge the incredible work your body will do throughout your pregnancy (and beyond!); it’s an incredible machine, no matter how it changes. When we allow ourselves to not get too wrapped up in how the body looks, but connect to loving it for all that it can do, we create space to thrive in our baby-body without feeling ashamed.

Image source.