Early motherhood is a time of significantly increased physical, mental, and emotional, and it’s primarily the nutrition from the food we eat that provides us with the fuel to keep up with it all.
This is why I’m always telling the mothers I work with that prioritising nutrient-dense foods is more important than ever before while in this phase of life; the bank account of our energy reserves will run dry if we don’t top it up with more savings (more nutrients).
These days, it’s harder than ever to make sense of what we should be eating to truly nourish our bodies. The information out there is clouded by conflicting opinions and scientific findings, decades of diet culture, and non-nutritional factors like the ethics and sustainability of food.
With all the noise out there regarding ‘healthy’ foods, especially with the global push towards plant-based diets, I believe women are being led astray from their roots and their intuition regarding how their bodies want to (and need to) be nourished. I see this weekly in clinic with the mothers I work with.
Today I’m going to explore three popular ‘health’ foods that might be depleting your energy as a new mother and suggest three of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat instead to boost your energy with food.
It’s not all or nothing
Before we jump in, I want to clarify that this is not an all-or-nothing, black and white thing.
While I might make some points below that I hope you’ll consider, I’m not suggesting that you need to cut these foods out altogether or never eat them again. Not at all.
But I am encouraging you to think about what proportions of these foods you are currently eating and whether there is any room to shift the needle to include more of the most nutrient-dense foods discussed at the end. I still eat some of these foods from time to time and there is room for that.
Plant-based milks (almond milk, oat milk, soy milk)
I talk to mothers every week who made the switch from cow’s milk to a milk alternative like almond milk or oat milk because they believed it was better for their health. Outside of a genuine cow’s milk protein allergy or dairy intolerance, there is no basis for this nutrition myth that is currently being perpetuated mainly by the plant-based movement.
Dairy is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available to us. It’s an excellent source of all macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), as well as many important micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin D, iodine, and calcium. It’s not the bad guy it’s made out to be.
Plant milks, on the other hand, contain virtually no valuable nutrition. To add, they are usually loaded with less than desirable ingredients like polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) in the form of industrial vegetable oils, gums and thickeners, added sugar, synthetic vitamins, and natural flavours. They are an ultra-processed food.
The lack of nutrition is one issue – it deprives mothers of the opportunity to consume something more nourishing, something with the micronutrients they need to top up their energy bank account. The other issue is that some of these additive ingredients, particular the PUFA oils have been found to impair energy production pathways at the cellular level. They are bad news.
It is possible to get better options that don’t have these additives, and if you’re adamant that you’re going to consume plant milks then you must choose one of these options, but if you don’t hold strong moral beliefs about consuming dairy then just drink the damn milk.
There are multiple issues with whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa* and oats, which are promoted as being a healthy alternative to other carbohydrate foods (*quinoa is technically not a grain, but all of the points below apply). While I would agree with the message that whole grains are a better choice compared to processed grain foods like pasta, bread, noodles, and crackers, when comparing grains (whole grain or not) to other whole food options, they fall short and their pros don’t outweigh their cons.
Firstly, whole grains contain antinutrients that make them difficult to digest and difficult for our body to access and absorb the nutrients they contain (whole grain nutrients have low bioavailability). Their antinutrients include enzyme inhibitors that interfere with our digestion, lectins that damage our gut (gluten is a type of lectin, FYI), and phytic acid that binds to the nutrients within the grain preventing their absorption.
These compounds are part of the plant’s self-defence system to ward off predators and protect the seed from being eaten or destroyed (grains are seeds and seeds are plant babies).
These plant defence compounds are also found in nuts & seeds, and legumes.
These compounds can be reduced by proper preparation, like soaking, sprouting and activating. Still, almost no one is consuming their whole grains this way and any processed food made with grains is certainly not properly prepared.
On top of this, whole grains aren’t even a great source of nutrition anyway. Yes, they do contain small amounts of micronutrients, but there are so many better options to help us meet our needs that when considered in light of their antinutrient content and low bioavailability of nutrients, whole grains don’t come close when it comes to nutrient density.
What all of this means for your energy is that you’re potentially increasing the load and demand on your digestive system while not actually getting the nutrients you think you’re getting to support your energy production pathways, all while missing an opportunity for eating a more nourishing food.
From a carbohydrate and a fibre perspective, choosing simple and easier-to-digest carbs like white potatoes and sweet potatoes, ripe or cooked fruits, or even simple white rice might be a better option for you to boost your energy and keep your reserves high.
Anytime we consume carbohydrates, no matter which food we choose, we always have to be mindful of balancing our blood sugars by pairing them with protein and/or fat.
Large servings of raw vegetables
This is one that I’ve changed my mind about quite significantly in recent times. Not that long ago, I was a salad queen and I was of the view that we all needed to eat more veggies, including in the form of big servings of raw vegetable salads.
But my views have shifted, and here’s why.
Firstly, raw vegetables are really hard for our digestive system to process. A lot of the plant matter goes through undigested (aka the fibre). And I know, I know, prebiotic fibre feeds our good gut bacteria, but we don’t need extremely large volumes of it, nor do we necessarily need the insoluble fibre at all.
Large amounts of fibre can actually bind to other nutrients and carry them out of the digestive tract instead of allowing them to be absorbed.
Because of their high fibre content, large servings of raw vegetables can feel quite filling at the time of eating, but this works against us in the long run because this volume crowds out the opportunity for consuming the nutrient-dense foods our body actually needs.
Some vegetables can be a source of antinutrients, aka compounds that are trying to protect the plant but that means bad news for our body; things such as oxalates and lectins.
And at the end of the day, while vegetables are often touted as being nutritious, the density of nutrition per realistic serving size is relatively low compared to other more nutrient-dense foods. Leafy greens are the exception here, they routinely come out high on the list of nutrient-dense foods, but always eat these cooked for best digestion and absorption.
If you are going to eat your veggies, I would suggest that most of the time you cook them well (as this breaks down some, but not all antinutrients and fibre). And make note that the concerns I’m sharing relate to large servings on a regular basis, not a snack of veggie sticks a few times a week, some lettuce in your lunch wrap, or a green salad starter with your dinner here and there.
Three foods to start eating instead
If you really want to boost your energy with the food you eat, you need to do two things: balance your blood sugars and eat nutrient-dense foods.
Three of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet are:
- Red meat
Others include oysters, milk, shellfish, sardines, and dark leafy greens.
Many people find the suggestion of consuming liver unappealing or even quite confronting. Culturally, we have moved away from consuming the whole animal, including organ meats – something that would have been commonplace in the past and still is in some cultures around the world. However, if there ever was a ‘superfood’, liver might be the top candidate – it is the best food source of a whole range of nutrients, including many that are important for tired mothers, like protein, folate, B12, iron, zinc, vitamin A, copper, selenium, and choline.
How to include liver:
- Chicken liver is the mildest tasting option
- Try buying some organic chicken liver pate to have with wholegrain crackers or spread on sourdough toast.
- Buy fresh or frozen livers from your local butcher and then grate it from frozen into other meals to hide the liver, e.g. into Bolognese sauce, Shepherd’s pie, or meatballs. This masks the taste, while dramatically boosting the nutrition of your meal. Start with 30g grated into a family-size meal and build up your taste buds from there, ideally aiming for around 100g and including it in one family meal each week.
- You can experiment with raw liver capsules (something I’ve been doing personally for a few months and loving), but this comes with an increased risk to consider due to consuming the liver raw, not cooked
- If consuming liver in wholefood form (pate, grated, sautéed) isn’t your jam, try desiccated liver capsules. These can be swallowed whole or opened and sprinkled over any food or meal.
Meat has gotten a really bad rap over the last 50 years thanks to its vilification by nutrition science due to its association with certain diseases. For many people, this has meant limiting their intake of red meat in an effort to protect or improve their health. But more recently, the strength and validity of some of this research has been brought into question, bringing red meat back on the menu after a long time out in the cold.
The truth is, red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, it’s easily digested and rich in bioavailable forms of protein, saturated fat (which, news flash, is the healthy kind of fat our body wants), and micronutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and selenium. A diet rich in meat is also consistent with our evolution and the way we have been eating for thousands of years.
Ways to include more red meat:
- Slow cooks and casseroles
- Mexican ground beef bowls
- Rissoles or burgers
- Roasts or tray bakes
- Stir fries
- Shepherd’s pie
- Sausages – try to get options with little or no additives
- Beef jerky
Eggs are an absolute nutritional powerhouse and mother nature’s original multivitamin. They provide many of the essential nutrients needed for new and tired mothers all in one convenient little package, including protein, fat, choline, vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
I recommend aiming for at least 2 eggs/day to help you meet your choline needs (among all the other nutrients), but especially if you’re not going to consume liver regularly, eggs are the only other meaningful source of choline.
Ways to include more eggs:
- Eggs any way for breakfast
- Boiled eggs for snacks throughout the day or to add to quick lunches
- Add egg yolk to hot drinks like coffee or hot chocolates
- Egg cups
- Egg pancakes/wraps
- Add eggs to dishes like potato salad
What I hope you take away from this article is the importance of nutrient dense foods in the season of early motherhood. When we’re under external pressures and demands (aka motherhood) we need to nourish our body with plenty of nutrients (macro and micronutrients) to ensure that our body can keep up with the demands placed on it. When we fall short of these demands from a nutritional perspective, our energy levels are one of the first things to suffer.
While some foods might look good on paper, like the three foods I explored above, there are often other factors that aren’t always considered or presented as part of the full picture, like the difficulty of digestion, the bioavailability of nutrients, the presence of antinutrients, or the general lack of nutrient density. Factors that push a food from the ‘healthy’ category into the not-so-great category.
Focus on nutrient density. Include more liver, eggs, and red meat.