Is Keto Safe for Pregnant Women?
When it comes to popular diet plans, the ultra high-fat, low-carb keto diet is incredibly popular. But what is the keto diet, and why does it have people shunning bread, pasta and fruit for cheese, meat and avocados? And is it safe to follow a keto diet during pregnancy?
The short answer: No, pregnant women shouldn’t go keto. Read on to find out why it’s safer to steer clear of this trendy eating plan if you’re pregnant.
What is the keto diet?
The keto diet (short for ketogenic diet) generally requires consuming roughly 75 percent of your daily calories from fat, 15 to 20 percent from protein and just five to 10 percent from carbohydrates. Unlike some low-carb diets that recommend nixing sugar and processed grains (like white bread and pasta), going on the keto diet means eliminating nearly all carbs from your diet, including most fruits, whole grains and some vegetables.
Why? Carbs are the body’s preferred energy source; when the body runs out of carbs to burn, it turns to fat and produces ketones, inducing a state called ketosis. This can lead to weight loss.
Keto diet proponents say that eating this way increases energy, lowers diabetes risk and helps you lose weight quickly without any hunger. But research into keto is still limited, with very few high-quality clinical studies in humans. Researchers have cautioned that there’s still a lot we don’t know about how high-fat, low-carb eating impacts long-term health.
Is the keto diet safe during pregnancy?
When it comes to the keto diet and pregnancy, research is scarce. There haven’t been any controlled studies done in pregnant human women, as testing on this group is, understandably, discouraged. However, pregnant mice fed a ketogenic diet produced embryos with alterations in their growth rates as well as in the development of structures and organs (such as the spine, heart and brain) that may be associated with future dysfunction.
Experts stress that the keto diet is simply not safe for pregnant women, in part since the basic premise of this diet — teaching the body to use ketones instead of glucose — doesn’t work for growing babies. Glucose from carbohydrates is a primary energy source for baby’s growth and development.
Is the keto diet good for gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes has increased in the past decade, with between two to 10 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. developing the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the condition can lead to serious problems for both mother and baby, it’s important to keep your blood sugar in balance during pregnancy. But while there is evidence that a keto diet helps to control diabetes in non-pregnant people, there is no solid evidence that the diet helps with gestational diabetes.
If you have gestational diabetes, ask your practitioner about strategies to help manage the condition, such as eating smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day to keep blood sugar stable, or cutting out processed carbs like candy and junk food while increasing your intake of veggies, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and protein.
What if I’m pregnant and overweight?
Unless your doctor specifically advises you otherwise, you should not try to lose weight during pregnancy. While weight gain recommendations vary based on your starting body mass index (BMI), your body’s first priority is growing a healthy baby, so that should be your main focus during pregnancy, not dieting.
Rather than relying solely on your weight as an indicator of your health, treat pregnancy as the perfect time to shift your attention to increasing the quality of your diet. Focus on eating nutrient-dense, whole foods that aren’t high in refined sugars, and be mindful of your hunger and fullness cues.
What is a healthy pregnancy diet?
Now that you know the keto diet is off the table, what should you be eating during pregnancy?
First off, make sure you’re eating enough calories. Calorie needs vary quite a bit depending on your starting BMI, height, age and activity level, but it’s generally recommended that you add an additional 300 to 350 calories per day in the second trimester, and about 500 more calories than your pre-pregnancy diet in the third trimester. (In the first trimester, you likely won’t need extra calories unless you were underweight when you became pregnant.)
When it comes to the form those calories come in, focus on eating a mix of nutrient-dense foods, including eggs, lean meats (think chicken, pork tenderloin, lean beef cuts), calcium-rich foods (cheese, milk, yogurt, calcium-fortified soy milk), fruits and veggies (avocados, red bell peppers, mangoes, spinach, kale, bananas and sweet potatoes are all good options), seafood (low-mercury fish like salmon and sardines are particularly good choices), and whole grains and legumes.
Instead of eliminating carbs, a healthier approach is to remember that not all carbohydrates are equal. Experts recommend avoiding simple carbs from junk foods like cookies, sugary cereals, candy, chips, soda and ice cream but keeping complex carbs like berries, apples, beans, sweet potatoes and squash on the menu.
And, of course, continue to take your prenatal vitamin throughout your pregnancy and drink plenty of water.