I’ve been experimenting with something kind of crazy lately: exercising in the middle of the day. What?! you might say. People usually exercise in the morning or the afternoon (although there are those who exercise in their lunch break instead of having lunch). I usually also prefer the afternoon for exercise, but hear me out…
Recently, I experienced some neck and back issues that tended to get worse the longer I remained sitting. Now, I work at my desk, so that’s kind of unavoidable. “How can I break up the periods of sitting?” I wondered. I began by looking at what my typical day looked like: identify the problem.
A typical day
Here’s what a typical day looks like for me. In the morning, I walk to daycare with William and then back home. It’s nice to start the day with a walk outside, and I’m glad I have this opportunity. Then, I come home and sit at my desk for the whole morning. I take brief breaks, but in the end I still spend about 3 hours sitting.
I’ve been caffeine-free for 28 days today. Crazy, I know.
How it started
Many people who know me are aware of the fact that I don’t drink coffee. I looove coffee, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me jittery and anxious. I realized this years ago, stopped drinking coffee, and immediately felt more at ease.
Now, I’ve been a fan of green tea for a long time. I was having one tea in the morning and one tea in the afternoon, and I loved the energy they gave me. It made me excited about the activity at hand, but also I easily became nervous if a mildly stressful event occurred. I noticed that green tea made me more excited, but it also made me more anxious.
For a long time, the trade off was worth it. I was working on my PhD thesis, analyzing data or writing papers, both tasks which require perseverance and concentration. My green tea helped me in that regard. (Note on black tea: I looooooove black tea, but since its effect is stronger, it quickly became too much for me, so I had to limit it.)
Things weren’t so great anymore
For years, I’d had about one headache per week, but I could easily get rid of it if I took a painkiller. (I really needed that painkiller because the headache was so strong that I couldn’t function anymore, and it wouldn’t go away even after a full night’s sleep.) I just thought, “Well, I guess I’m prone to headaches,” and left it at that.
Over time, my headaches became more frequent and more intense. During the last couple of months, I was having two or three headaches per week, and sometimes a painkiller (or even two) was not enough to ease the pain. I was becoming concerned. I’d heard that headaches may get worse with age, but I had hoped that wouldn’t be the case for me.
Also, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I usually felt a light headache set in after I drank my tea. Sometimes it dissipated an hour or two later, but sometimes it lingered and intensified. I tried to ignore this fact as long as possible… until the side effects of the painkillers got too unpleasant (stomach pain and bloating) and the painkillers weren’t easing the headache anymore (which was super scary).
I’m not sure how this works exactly because caffeine is a pain reducer, so I’m not sure why I was getting headaches from drinking tea. One possibility is that the tea made me more tense, so I tensed my shoulders and neck, and that gave me tension headaches.
Beginning the caffeine-free experiment
The time had come. I really wanted to be pain-free, so it was worth it for me to try getting rid of my oh-so-favorite tea.
On one Saturday morning, on August 27, I simply did not drink tea. I drank water with electrolytes, and that was it. I missed my tea terribly. Same thing in the afternoon.
I have to say, I was a bit tired (my body was missing the effects of the caffeine), and I started getting a light headache before lunch. Then, I had lunch and took a little nap (10-15 minutes), and the headache was gone. I also developed a light headache towards bedtime, but sleeping alleviated it. (This was definitely not the case in the past! I’ve woken up multiple times because a headache was so bad I couldn’t sleep.) Clearly, I was experiencing withdrawal effects.
This continued for the next 5 days or so. I was more tired than usual, and I developed light headaches, but nothing like what I was used to. I didn’t need to take a single painkiller.
I was withdrawing from green tea, can you believe it! My teas were rather strong, to be honest, so perhaps it’s not that surprising. I made the transition period easier by sleeping enough (also taking a power nap in the afternoon) and drinking water with electrolytes. And just letting the time pass by.
After those first five days, I felt I was quite adapted to being caffeine-free. My energy returned to its previous levels, and I felt perfectly fine without tea, something I considered impossible before.
Perhaps best of all, my headaches were gone. Gone!!! It’s been 28 days now, and I haven’t taken a single pain killer because I haven’t had to. I haven’t had a single headache! It’s truly unbelievable.
Also, an unexpected side effect is that I’m less anxious and more content. I realized that this low-level anxiety was making me more uneasy and critical. Once this critical voice subsided, I became more content. It’s a strange feeling, being content, I’m still getting used to it. In a way, it’s boring because it’s lower-energy. But at its core, it makes it easier to be at ease and just be.
What do I drink now?
To be honest, I am a bit annoyed that I can’t drink coffee or tea. I really, really like the taste of coffee and tea, so why can’t I drink them without getting headaches or becoming anxious, when most of the human population doesn’t seem to have any problems? It’s not fair!
And yet, it’s true that it’s not fair, but it’s useless to get stuck at that (as Dr Brooke says). Instead, I can focus on what works for me and enjoy my life.
I’ve discovered a new elixir of life: my cacao drink. I put a teaspoon of raw cacao powder in a cup of warm water, and I add several drops of a stevia-based sweetener. It’s absolutely delicious! (Let’s hope this one doesn’t end up having unpleasant side effects…)
How about caffeine-free coffee and tea? I’ve tried them both, but unfortunately both seem to give me light headaches, and the coffee makes me weirdly light-headed. I may try again in the future, but for now I won’t be drinking those.
Also, I’ve heard wonderful things about adaptogen mushroom elixirs (such as these), and I’d love to try them as well sometime. For now, I’m sticking to my cacao drink.
Finally, I drink lots of electrolyte water! Most of the time, I mix it myself by adding sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium malate in my water bottle. But once a day (usually in the afternoon), I drink an LMNT because they are so delicious and they make me feel amazing! (Watermelon is my favorite.)
Note: The links are purely for information purposes. I don’t make any money if you purchase anything via the links because they are not affiliate links 🙂
Image: Me showing off my favorite coffee/tea/cacao mug with a sheep!
Have you ever gone caffeine-free? If so, what was your experience?
This is a sticky issue. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but after several people asked me, “How did you get back in shape so fast after having a baby?” I thought I’d share my thoughts.
First of all, I think it’s insane how much pressure is placed on women to “get back in shape” after having a baby. New mothers feel like a part of their self-worth depends on how quickly they “bounce back” and get their “pre-baby body back.” (Which is a ridiculous idea if you think about it: you had a baby, so your body is forever post-baby! You’re never getting your pre-baby body back, and that’s the whole point!)
I did it! I completed my first Whole30, woohoo! A Whole30 is a 30-day self-experiment where you take out certain food groups (grains, dairy, alcohol, sugar, any craving-inducing foods) and then reintroduce them one at a time to see how they affect you, i.e., whether you can eat them and feel good. I wrote about the beginning of my self-experiment here.
Today when I’m writing this it’s day 31, or day 1 after the Whole30 is finished. I’ve observed a couple of solid benefits during my 30 days of eating vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.
Quite quickly, my energy became stable throughout the day. I used to feel sleepy after a meal, reasonably energetic an hour later, and then very tired as I got hungry again. This became especially exacerbated when I was sleep deprived (which is not uncommon when you have a 6-month-old baby).
On the Whole30, I wasn’t sleepy after meals, and I didn’t have that I’m-about-to-faint feeling when I was hungry again. That’s a huge deal for me! It is really tough to try to get through your day feeling groggy and/or like you’re about to pass out. It felt great to have solid energy throughout the day!
Along with that, my mood stabilized. I used to get irritated and impatient when I was hungry (a.k.a. “hangry”), and I was also just more dissatisfied with things in general. As my energy and blood sugar stabilized, so did my mood. I felt at ease and more mellow throughout the day.
This also has to do with the fact that before starting the Whole30 I was trying to battle sleep deprivation by drinking green tea and eating dark chocolate. While I love these things, they were making me a bit jumpy, anxious, and impatient. When I removed them, I was afraid that I’d be unhappy and groggy the whole time. But once my energy became even and stable, my mood did the same, and overall I felt relaxed and at ease.
Patience and “Zen”
Funny enough, I became more patient. It took more to get me annoyed (don’t get me wrong, I still got annoyed, but my threshold was higher), and I became better at keeping things in perspective. For instance, if William was crying when he was supposed to be sleeping, I thought, “Poor little thing, maybe he is teething, let me cuddle him” instead of, “I was supposed to have time to read now, I’m so upset that he’s crying!”
I felt like I had more leeway in my response to other people. Instead of immediately getting frustrated or deciding that someone is an idiot, I was better able to consider people’s circumstances and generally be more patient.
Improvement in William’s eczema
An unexpected consequence was that William’s eczema improved. (I should mention here that I’m breastfeeding William, so what I eat has a direct influence on what he eats. Duh.) I was wondering why removing green tea and chocolate would have anything to do with his eczema, and, after doing some research, it struck me that both are high-histamine foods. Once I realized that, I also stopped eating sauerkraut (which is a very high-histamine food), and his eczema has been improving even more quickly.
I wish I’d known earlier that this was contributing to his eczema! How great it would have been if I had figured this out earlier and he hadn’t had eczema for the last 3 months… But I didn’t know back then. I tried out a bunch of things, and they barely helped. Now I’ve finally found what seems to be the answer, so now that I know better, I’ll do better. And I’ll give myself grace for not knowing earlier.
Love for herbal tea!
Finally, this Whole30 experience has rekindled my love for herbal tea! I’ve discovered that Pukka teas are awesome! I particularly love their Chamomile and Vanilla tea, their Three Licorice tea, and their Night tea. I can drink these all day long… (By the way, this blog post is not endorsed by Pukka; I just like their teas 😀 )
Now that the 30 days are over, I should be reintroducing the foods that I excluded for 30 days and observing their effect on me. While I’d love to do that and see exactly how grains, dairy, and sugar affect me, I’m a bit afraid to trigger William’s eczema again. So I’ve decided to go slowly and introduce only a little bit of each food at a time. If I notice that his eczema is getting worse again, I’ll immediately take out the food again. I really hope he tolerates ice cream well! 😀
I love programs such as 30-day challenges. If the program resonates with me, I’ll do it 100%, with lots of excitement! But I also only embark upon challenges that I truly want to complete. If I commit to something, I am going to do it, so I have to be certain the thing resonates with me before I start it.
I’ve been hearing about the Whole30 for a few months now. It’s a reset or self-experiment where for 30 days you exclude certain foods that can be commonly problematic. Then, after the 30 days are up, you introduce them one at a time and observe how they impact you. The point is to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
Apparently, the Whole30 is a big deal and quite popular, but I didn’t know about it until recently. When I saw the announcement that the Whole30AtHome was starting on April 13, 2020, and I decided to join! I was so excited!
I told Jacob, my husband, “We’re doing the Whole30!” “What is it?” he asked. After I gave him a brief description, he said, “Oh, it’s not so different from what we usually do. Sure, let’s do it.” Not exactly the enthusiasm I was hoping for, but he was on board, so I was happy.
What am I doing on this Whole30?
The Whole30 isn’t particularly different from how we usually eat at our home, but it is a bit more strict. Basically, on the Whole30, you eat meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds. You don’t eat grains, dairy, soy, legumes, beans, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, or alcohol. Generally, I don’t eat most of these things anyway, with the exception of sugar and artificial sweeteners, so this wasn’t such a big change for me.
But the Whole30 also places an emphasis on avoiding craving-inducing foods for the 30 days. This is the big deal for me… I looooooove sweet things, so I enjoy chocolate and dried fruit on a daily basis and a proper dessert once or twice a week.
This used to work fine for me until it became problematic a couple of months ago. Since I’m not sleeping properly because my baby wakes up multiple times a night, I am often tired during the day, so I end up craving sugar. The whole time I’d be thinking about when I can eat something sweet, and when I did, I just wanted more. This was quite exhausting, so I decided to cut out sugar for 30 days and see how it goes.
Another thing I’m cutting out is caffeine. Because I felt so tired, I was relying on green tea (and dark chocolate) to keep me going. You’re probably laughing right now: “Green tea? How about some coffee?” Well, coffee makes me go craaaaazy, so no coffee for me. While I absolutely adore green tea, it’s been making me feel anxious, rushed, and overall unable to relax. And then when I tried taking a nap, I couldn’t fall asleep because there was still caffeine in my system. Thus, for 30 days, I’m removing caffeine.
The combination of sugar and caffeine, albeit in small amounts, was resulting in my having energy peaks and dips. During the day, I felt like I was flying from activity to activity, which was exciting but also felt anxious. In between the peaks of energy, I had dips where I suddenly felt very tired and also cranky.
What results am I hoping for?
I have two main objectives with this Whole30: improving energy and mood. I’d like to have stable energy rather than peaks and dips. I’ll have to accept that I won’t have the excited peaks, but that also means I won’t feel super tired afterwards.
Related to these changes in energy are mood changes. During a peak, I feel excited but also a bit anxious and impatient, and then during a dip, I feel tired and cranky. I hope that by having stable energy, I’ll also have more stable moods, so I can relax and enjoy my days rather than hurrying around, feeling like I’m never doing enough.
People often find my food a bit funky. I live in the Netherlands, where lunch usually includes bread of some sort, so when I show up with my homemade salad with protein, people look at me in a questioning way. I used to get annoyed by people’s questions about my food, but I look at it differently now. People usually ask because they’re curious and not because they’re judging. If I keep this in mind, I can engage with people and tell them about the delicious lunch I’ve made.
When I got pregnant, several of my friends said they were surprised I continued eating in my ‘funky’ way. They had expected that I’d eat more ‘normally’ after I became pregnant, and I have to say I also didn’t know what to expect. But I noticed that my body felt best when I ate in the way that worked for me, emphasizing protein, vegetables, and healthful fats. I covered why I think that works well here, and I also talked about my struggle with nausea during the first trimester here.
So what did I eat during my pregnancy?
I will make this super practical and list my favorite meals during this pregnancy. These meals are not only for pregnant women; my husband eats them too, and he’s not pregnant! It’s just that they’ve worked really well for me during pregnancy, while I haven’t been so excited about some meals that I loved before pregnancy.
The breakfast I made for a long time was a frittata–basically, something like this. I usually put zucchini, carrots, and onions in it, but sometimes I switched up the veggies. 12 eggs go in there as well as some minced meat for protein. One such frittata lasts me for four days.
(Note: We often think of eggs as good protein sources, but in fact they don’t contain that much protein. A medium-sized egg contains about 5-6 grams of protein, and I aim for a minimum of 30 g of protein per meal (around 100 g per day). If I wanted to get all my breakfast protein from eggs, I’d have to eat 5-6 eggs… That’s a lot of eggs, and since they contain a lot of fat (in the yolks), I’d be overdoing the fat quite a bit. Therefore, I eat a couple of eggs with my breakfast and some minced or other meat to get my protein needs met and have stable blood sugar throughout the morning. But I make sure to also eat my eggs because they are great sources of choline as well as other nutrients which are super important for pregnant women as well as for people in general. With this type of breakfast, I’m only hungry again after 4-5 hours, which people say is impossible for pregnant women. Well!)
After a while, I got bored of frittata for breakfast though. Now I’m in a period of breakfast soup (it kind of looks like this). I put carrots, parsnip (I live in the Netherlands, where they have lots of parsnips, so let’s use all of these delicious root vegetables!!!), zucchini, and bok choy in a pot as well as spices and herbs. I let them cook (in water) until they turn into a nice soup. I boil eggs on the side and also cook some sort of protein (usually sausage because it gives a nice flavor to the soup). Every morning, I warm up a portion of the soup (the rest stays in the fridge or is frozen), cut up a sausage and two eggs into bite-sized pieces, and add them to the soup. And that’s it! Super simple and tasty.
There are many lunch options, but I’ll list my favorites. My current love is a salad with grated carrots and apples and some celery. I usually have a pre-cooked chicken breast on the side and half an avocado with it. On a food prep day, I usually put 4 chicken breasts with spices and salt in the oven (2 for me and 2 for Jacob). I take out the food processor and grate approximately 8 carrots (depends on their size, but about 2 per person per meal) and 4 apples (one per person per meal). I also cut 3-4 celery stalks into small pieces. Then I mix the vegetables and add a dressing of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, garlic powder, and salt. It’s super simple and amazingly delicious!!!
We also make a similar salad with grated carrots and beets; I prefer it without celery, while Jacob likes that one with celery too. Oh well, no celery it is. That one goes well with a dressing of olive oil, white wine vinegar, powdered mustard seed, and salad. Also super nice! Both of these salads we eat with protein such as chicken or really any other type of protein. If the meat doesn’t contain a lot of fat (such as a chicken breast), I add half an avocado or mayonnaise from avocado oil.
Another lunch I love is meat sauce with vegetables (kind of like this). We put onions in a skillet, then add the minced meat, then add the tomato sauce, spices, herbs, etc. and, if we’re feeling fancy, fried eggplant. On the side, we steam vegetables such as zucchini or broccoli. Then, we serve the vegetables topped with the meat sauce. It’s so simple and super delicious! I like to sprinkle some feta cheese on top for extra flavor (feta cheese is, luckily, one of the few types of dairy that doesn’t upset my stomach as long as I don’t overdo it).
I love dinner meals that are made up of some sort of protein, vegetables, and nice herbs/spices/sauces. This gives countless options!
One of my current favorites is salmon cooked in butter, garlic, and lemon juice; baked sweet potato with salt; and steamed brussel sprouts with olive oil, salt, and herbs (I never knew, before moving to the Netherlands, that brussel sprouts can be so delicious!! Now I want to eat them all the time…). I also love this vegetable combo with mackerel, which is, similarly to salmon, also a fish high in healthful fats. And I find it delicious!
Another favorite dinner of mine is chicken leg (baked in the oven for 100 minutes!! only with salt) with sweet potato and roasted cauliflower or broccoli. Super simple and tasty.
Jacob really liked stews, while I’m not a big fan. But he makes a truly delicious stew with stew meat (duh!), onions, pumpkin, carrots, and beets. The key is to put enough pumpkin 😉 as well as nice spices and herbs. I don’t like broccoli or brussel sprouts in a stew because they give it a less pleasant taste, in my opinion, but spinach, kale, and zucchini work well in a stew.
Sometimes I get hungry between meals, although I have to say that on some days I’m perfectly fine with just my three meals. If I need a snack, I usually have about 10 macadamia nuts. They’re delicious and rather filling, so they do the job. I also like brazil nuts and almonds; other nuts irritate my stomach, unfortunately.
If I’m not very hungry and just need a small snack, I drink a glass of bouillon or bone broth. It’s tasty (we make it at home), and it contains lots of good stuff for me and the baby such as collagen, but it’s also good for non-pregnant people.
I also have a favorite cocoa drink: 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder, a pinch of cinnamon, hot water, and a teaspoon of honey or some stevia. The taste of warm cocoa is super comforting, especially in the autumn/winter months!
If I want something sweet to eat, I eat our dark chocolate with caramel and sea salt (yummy!), but I can’t eat it too late or I don’t fall asleep because cocoa has some caffeine (people who drink coffee before bed will find this hilarious, but oh well…).
I also like baked apples with cinnamon in the oven (super simple and delicious!!), blueberries with honey, or just tangerines. One of these is usually my dessert in the evenings.
How do carbs figure in this way of eating?
Picking up the thread from my previous blog post, you may have noticed that I don’t really eat processed carbs (except on exceptions) since there is no bread, dough, cereal, or other such source in the foods I’ve described. I still get carbs, though, from vegetables. In my breakfast, there’s parsnip; in my lunches, there are beets, apples, or tomato sauce; in my dinners, there are sweet potatoes or pumpkin. I don’t include a lot of carbs in my meals, but it’s what works well for me. Other people might need more or less carbs than this to feel their best.
Do I ever eat other foods?!?!
People have asked me, “Don’t you ever eat other foods?” meaning ‘less healthy’ foods or foods that don’t work so well for me. Of course I do! There are times when I decide that it’s worth it to have something that I don’t usually eat.
I just need to take into account how I’ll feel afterwards. If I have something sweet in the afternoon, such as the pecan pie in the photo above or a fantastic brownie, that’s usually fine. I get a sugar peak and a dip and some bloating, but once in a while it’s not so bad. If I have a cheesecake or tiramisu, I’m in for more trouble because the dairy gives me more digestive issues, and I may be pretty uncomfortable for a while.
Gluten is another one that I have sometimes. If I don’t eat too much of it, it’s okay (such as in a cake or so). But if I eat a whole pizza, I’ll have issues for a couple of days afterwards, so it’s rarely worth it for me, especially since there often are gluten-free options for these things.
A difficult one is sushi. I love sushi, and one of the most difficult things about this pregnancy has been that I can’t eat raw fish (this recommendation may change in the future, but we’ll see). Still, I sometimes ate sushi with cooked fish during my pregnancy. While I loooooove it, the rice seriously expands in my belly afterwards. With an already big, pregnant belly, there isn’t that much space for extra expansion due to rice, so I’m not eating too much sushi these days 😦
And then there are foods that I just don’t eat. Spicy (as in ‘hot’) foods give me lots of pain and wreck me for days, so I avoid them completely. I also avoid alcohol because it makes my stomach upset for days after that. Oh, and since I’m pregnant, it’s probably not the best idea 😉
I know many pregnant women say they miss wine or beer the most and can’t wait to have it again once the baby comes. For me, that’s not particularly appetizing because I already wasn’t drinking for about 2 years before getting pregnant. But the things I really look forward to are raw fish and a medium-rare steak!!! This baby is supposed to come out in 2 days (or soon after), so I’ve almost made it! Just a little more patience…
Since I got pregnant, people have been even more intrigued by my food. “What are you eating? Can you eat that? You should eat/drink this and this when you’re pregnant.” Sometimes people ask because they’re curious and they’d genuinely like to know how I’m eating. I appreciate that approach, but I don’t appreciate it when people try to tell me what to do.
Pregnant women are constantly being told from multiple sources what they should and shouldn’t eat. There are certain accepted dietary restrictions for pregnant women such as no raw meat, no unpasteurized cheeses, and no alcohol. But there’s also a lot of confusion out there about how a woman should eat healthfully when pregnant.
What should a pregnant woman eat?
Pregnant women usually hear that they should gain weight but not too much weight. They should try to slow down their weight gain in order to avoid many scary-sounding complications. But how is a pregnant woman supposed to do that? One’s hormonal landscape is quite different from usual during pregnancy, so hunger cues and cravings can be all over the place. Dealing with those is difficult with “normal” hormones, so what is left for pregnancy hormones!
Most websites and apps recommend a common high-carbohydrate diet to pregnant women. Basically, women are supposed to eat lots of vegetables with some protein, not a lot of fat, and a decent amount of carbohydrates, especially whole grains and fruit.
Now, there are some good and some bad things about this advice. Lots of vegetables? Great! Most people benefit from eating lots of vegetables, as they deliver important nutrients, provide fiber to improve our digestion, and help us stay satiated.
Protein? Yes, please! Protein is super important to keep our hormones balanced, to stabilize our blood sugar, and to promote satiety, thus reducing ravenous hunger and cravings. While the protein recommendations on most pregnancy websites and apps are still too low, some health professionals have started emphasizing the importance of sufficient protein.
Another note on protein: Recently, healthful eating has come to rely less on animal protein, which doesn’t work for a lot of people. I see protein recommendations for pregnant women including, for example, feta cheese, almonds, and chickpeas. While those do include some protein, cheese and nuts have more fat than protein, and chickpeas and other legumes include more carbohydrate than protein. What’s more, humans absorb protein better from animal sources (such as meat and fish) than from plant sources. So these common protein recommendations for pregnant women often don’t meet one’s protein needs. Alternatively, if one eats enough of the food to get sufficient protein, then she is getting too much fat or carbohydrates for her needs, which leads to eating too many calories or unstable blood sugar.
Confusion: How much carbs should a pregnant woman eat?
Back to the commonly recommended pregnancy diet, many websites encourage women to eat lots of carbohydrates. Paraphrasing from one source (because I don’t want to throw any one organization under the bus), pregnant women should eat lots of starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, jacket potatoes, rice and pasta because these are good sources of vitamins, fiber, and energy. Starchy foods are supposed to take up one third of a woman’s meal. Whoa!
The main problem with this advice is that starchy foods raise blood sugar unfavorably for many of us. When blood sugar is high, insulin is also high because it tries to lower our blood sugar and store the energy from the food in our fat cells. While this is a normal and healthy process, if blood sugar is too high, insulin is also rather high, leading to more fat storage than what we would consider optimal. Therefore, it’s useful not to eat foods that raise our blood sugar too much too often.
This can vary from person to person, but there are some important commonalities between pregnant women. When a woman is pregnant, she is more insulin resistant than usual, meaning she stores fat more easily. This is a smart way for the body to make sure she retains enough fat to fuel the baby’s development throughout pregnancy and afterwards through breast feeding. But in today’s industrialized world, our foods often contain too much carbohydrates for our activity levels, leading to unwanted weight gain and health complications along the way.
Once blood sugar has been driven high by eating lots of starchy foods, it can often drop rather low afterwards. This leads to light-headedness, intense hunger, and cravings for sweets. Is it a surprise, then, that pregnant women, who are encouraged to eat lots of carbohydrates, often report insatiable cravings and ravenous hunger? Once again, pregnant women’s unique hormonal situation also makes them more prone to these swings in blood sugar.
A vicious cycle
This can lead to a vicious cycle. A pregnant woman eats more carbohydrates than she needs for her metabolism and activity levels, her blood sugar spikes and then drops, she feels light-headed, hungry and irritable, and feels that the only solution is to eat something sugary. She consumes something sweet, and the cycle begins anew.
This can lead to too much weight gain, upon which the woman’s health practitioner might tell her to “slow down her weight gain.” But how is she supposed to do that if she’s on the blood sugar roller coaster? The ravenous hunger and intense cravings are way beyond our will power, so, naturally, the steep weight gain continues.
This may be one of the factors contributing to the high levels of gestational diabetes seen today (gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy and can have significant consequences for mother and baby). Interestingly enough, one of the main treatments for a mother with gestational diabetes is to tell her to eat less carbohydrates. Wow! Maybe we should have started with that in order to try to prevent some cases of gestational diabetes in the first place?
Please note that I’m not saying pregnant women should eat no carbohydrates. Not at all! Carbs are an important component of our diet, and many of us need them to function optimally. However, the amount of carbs pregnant women are usually told to eat is way too high for their needs (metabolism and activity level) and ends up causing unwanted issues. It’s time we recognize that and learn how to help pregnant women better.
“You’re pregnant, you can eat whatever you want!”
Pregnant or not, you can always eat whatever you want! You’re an adult (I assume) with a wallet, so you can go to the store and buy whatever food you want. The point is to recognize how your choices are working for you. Once you know how a food affects you (does it give you stable energy, does it make you ravenously hungry a few hours after eating, or does it give you cravings soon after eating), you can link the food to the consequences and decide when/how often to eat it.
Nobody’s ‘diet’ needs to be perfect according to any standard; it just needs to work for you. Many pregnant women would like to avoid excessive weight gain and related health complications, so they need to find foods that allow them to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, the commonly recommended pregnancy diet is not optimal for many people. I wish more women had the tools to figure out what foods work for them and allow them to achieve their health goals.
What do you think pregnant women should eat? If you were ever pregnant, did you experience ravenous hunger? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Perhaps surprisingly, self-care is not super easy for me. Most of the time, I manage to follow the priorities I set for myself, so my life feels like it’s in accordance with what I want. This may be relatively easy for me because I’m an Upholder according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework, which means that I meet my own expectations as easily as I meet other people’s expectations. But that doesn’t apply with equal strength to everything.
One major point of difficulty is self-care. Self-care is a popular topic right now, being discussed by life coaches, health professionals, and writers. You might think that, as an Upholder, I wouldn’t struggle with this, but that’s not the case. I admit that I find it easier to do things for myself (such as find time to exercise or set aside me-time) than some other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely easy.
A week ago, I had a funky experience. I was doing my thing around the house, getting ready for work, when I got a sudden, sharp pain in my belly. Not a great thing when you’re pregnant. A few seconds later it went away, so I continued going about my business, but then it came back again. I thought it might be something, so I lay down and called my obstetrician. She told me to lie down for 20-30 minutes or until it goes away. She said it’s not super worrisome, but I should try to prevent it from happening.
After speaking to her, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Lie down for 30 minutes?! But I have a plan for today, I have work to do!” My mind was in go-go-go mode, and I didn’t want to lie down, but apparently my body needed me to pause. When self-care became non-negotiable, I obliged, but it would have never happened otherwise.
Take breaks (again…)
Along the same line, I’ve known for a long time that I should take frequent breaks from sitting for the health of my back. Did I do this regularly in the past? Not really. I’d set a timer for 25 minutes and mean to get up and walk around when it went off, but it was so much easier to keep working–it’s just unpleasant to be interrupted. So I’d end up ignoring the timer and only getting up when I got stiff.
As I described in a post last week, pregnancy has forced me to change this behavior. Since my back is getting much more tired now, I really do get up when that timer goes off (okay, most of the time I do…) and walk around. But I’m only doing this because of the real possibility that I may get a trapped nerve in my back if I continue sitting all day without breaks. Again, the circumstances have made it unavoidable that I have to take care of my back.
Get more sleep (finally)
Big surprise: I’ve been needing more sleep since I got pregnant. I sleep 8.5-9 hours a night, and if I sleep any less, I wake up tired and groggy. This is crazy! 7.5-8 hours of sleep used to be fine, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore.
At first, I tried to make it through the day with my usual amount of sleep and maybe catch a little snooze for 15 minutes after lunch. Nope, that didn’t work; I was just irritable and tired.
So now I’m making sure I get more sleep. I start my bedtime routine at 21:00, get in bed at 22:00 (or 22:30 at the latest), put on my sleep mask and earplugs, and sleep until 7:00! I feel like a boring person for going to bed so early, but it makes such a big difference to wake up rested. I decided to enjoy good sleep for now while I still have the opportunity.
Is self-care selfish?
I keep wondering why it is so difficult to take care of ourselves even when we know we should. We all know we should make time for our own needs and health, but it feels harder to do that than to work, clean the house, or help a friend, for example.
I think it’s because we feel that we are the only ones benefiting from our self-care, and we’ve been taught not to be selfish. Technically, we’re not the only ones benefiting because we’re much better able to do our work or take care of others when we’ve taken care of ourselves, but this is often difficult to see because the benefits for other people are not immediately obvious.
Pregnancy has been a good reminder for me that taking care of myself means simultaneously taking care of someone else. Having this reason has made it easier for me to rest more, although I still feel guilty and like I should be doing more.
I recently came across a post from Molly Galbraith where she says that every woman has the right to take care of herself not because that makes her a better caretaker but just because she is worth it. This struck me. It applies to any human being: we shouldn’t need a reason to take care of ourselves; we should just do so because we inherently deserve it.
How to ensure we take care of ourselves
I think many of us are not quite there yet, although it would be great if we were. For all of us who struggle with self-care, it may be best to:
Find a good reason (a strong ‘why’) which leads us to engage in self-care (as pregnancy is for me right now);
Find an effective accountability system: join a group that will keep you accountable, find a buddy for a certain activity, or get a coach (in my case, it works when my husband says, “You’ve been standing for a long time, you need to sit down (or lie down) for five minutes” or “You’re tired, you need to go to bed”);
Find a system that works for you (such as my timer that tells me to get up and walk around).
While it would be great if we could take care of ourselves simply because we’re worth it, I believe that anyway we can get ourselves to engage in self-care is achieving the goal.
How do you take care of yourself? What do you struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Recently, my back has been getting tired as my belly has been growing. This is what I’ve been doing to relieve the tension.
The most important trick: take breaks!
Jacob, my chiropractor husband, had told me a long time ago that since I sit at a desk at work, I need to take frequent breaks. I’ve often gone back and forth on this one, taking breaks for a few days or even a week and then going back to being too lazy to walk up and down the hallway. I used to set a reminder every hour that said, “Take a break!” When that reminder popped up, I’d think, “You’re not going to tell me to take a break!” and keep working.
But I was recently reminded of the importance of taking breaks. It really makes a difference if I get up for a few minutes and walk around or do some simple stretches. My back is better able to stay seated afterwards and doesn’t get as tired.
Therefore, I’ve re-established the use of the Pomodoro method (I’m currently using the Focus Booster app because it has a nice small clock that can stay on top of whatever other app I’m using, so I can always see how much time I have left of my work period). The Pomodoro method alternatres work periods (typically 25 minutes) with break periods (typically 5 minutes and every ~2 hours a longer break) and emphasizes focusing on one task at a time and avoiding distractions.
Funny enough, I also use this method for other activities such as cooking. Jacob and I have two long cooking sessions a week (on Sunday and Wednesday evenings) which usually last 1.5-2 hours, and we cook all our food for the next few days (including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any snacks). If I remain standing in the kitchen for 2 hours, this kills my back. Therefore, I set a Pomodoro timer, and after 25 minutes, I take a break. I usually sit or lie down, and after 5 minutes I’m ready to continue cooking.
These frequent breaks have nicely come together with my Doing Nothing practice. I try not to check my phone during the 5-minute breaks and instead allow my thoughts to wander and do their thing. Only now do I realize that a brief message or notification can distract me when I’m in working mode. Even if I read it during the break between two work sessions, I sometimes keep thinking about the message when I start working again and can’t focus as well as I did beforehand. More generally, responding to messages or checking social media during a brief break can easily extend a 5-minute break to 10 or 15 minutes, which is then not simply a brief, refreshing break.
Exercise and walking
Since the beginning of my pregnancy, I’ve been following a training program for pregnancy called Moms Gone Strong which includes strength and cardio exercise. This program is amazing and has helped me challenge myself appropriately and continue to strengthen my back. I usually train 3-4 times a week.
I also do prenatal yoga from Yoga with Adrienne 1-2 times per week. It helps me relax and get some pressure off my back, and it generally gives me that wonderful zen feeling that yoga brings.
I really like walking, so I try to get in a 30-minute walk every day. If I have the time, I go for 1-1.5 hours, taking a short break every 30 minutes or so. I love going for walks in nature whenever possible.
A couple of months ago, my lower back muscles started cramping up quite a bit. Jacob explained that this happens because now, due to the growing belly, my front core muscles can’t really work anymore, so my lower back muscles end up carrying the weight of the whole belly and also help me stay upright. Because of the structure of my lower back and spine, the muscles end up cramping up, which is painful.
Jacob suggested that I roll my back and glutes on a lacrosse ball. Yikes. I hadn’t done this before, so it hurt like a *$@%*&#*$&*# the first few days when I was rolling on the ball, but immediately afterwards the cramping up was released and I was more pain-free for the rest of the day. Now I use the lacrosse ball almost every day, and while it’s not exactly pleasant (i.e., it still hurts), it’s much more bearable than at first. It definitely helps to release those cramped up back muscles!
These are the tricks I’ve discovered so far to alleviate backache and that work best for me. Let me know if you have other awesome tips I should know about!
Over the past couple of months, several people contacted me to ask about my gastritis journey after reading my blog posts on the topic. I’ve repeatedly been surprised by how many people struggle with this chronic condition for years and years. Apparently, it wasn’t just my problem but many people’s problem as well.
(For those who don’t know what gastritis is, it’s an inflammation of the stomach wall. It’s often a precursor or a gentler version of a stomach ulcer. People who have gastritis have intense stomach pain when they’re hungry or if they’ve eaten something spicy, hot, or irritating in some other way. I’ve written extensively about my experience with gastritis here.)
My gastritis had been doing very well (probably about 70-80% better) over the past two years. I could get by with 3-4 meals a day (compared to the 6-7 meals in the past) and only had pain if I got really, really hungry. I often didn’t feel like I had gastritis anymore and felt like a healthy person again.
Pregnancy changed everything
Suddenly, everything changed when I got pregnant. The first two-three weeks before I knew I was pregnant were truly bizarre. I’d wake up in the morning, starving. One weekend, we were visiting a friend in Brussels, and on both Saturday and Sunday I woke up around 7 am. Still tired and extremely hungry, I made my way to the kitchen while my husband and our host were still sleeping. I barely managed to make scrambled eggs without passing out–my blood sugar levels were so low that I was super light-headed. Once I ate my breakfast, I could finally relax and drink my tea, waiting for the others to wake up. By the time we were all ready to go and went for brunch (around 11-12 h), I was happy to eat again.
Once I found out I was pregnant, this ravenous hunger made more sense. At least it seemed like there was a reason for this craziness. But then the nausea hit around week 5, and nothing made sense anymore. I’d eat a meal and be hungry two hours later. Or I’d eat a snack but be starving only an hour later.
Ravenous hunger + gastritis = not great…
Ravenous hunger is typical for pregnancy, but it becomes tricky when coupled with gastritis. It wasn’t that I was simply hungry, but I was also in pain. Apparently, even though I’d been recovering well from my gastritis, these intense hunger pangs were enough to bring it back. I was back to eating 6-7 (small) meals a day, which is recommended when you’re nauseous during pregnancy. But that meant I was back to being stressed about when exactly I’d get hungry again next, whether I’d have enough food, whether I’d be in pain and terribly light-headed, etc.
It was tough. I felt that everything I’d worked towards and achieved health-wise over the past few years had been a waste and now I was back in the throes of dealing with gastritis. I was frustrated by the crazy way my body was acting, and I felt I had no control over it (hello, pregnancy land!).
What used to work didn’t work anymore
Worst of all, the strategies that had helped me in the past didn’t work anymore. I had done very well eating paleo-style meals, emphasizing protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables (I’ve described this in more detail here). But now, in this crazy new pregnancy land, I couldn’t do this anymore.
As an example, one day during week 5 of my pregnancy, I went to have lunch. I opened my lunchbox of chicken thighs and broccoli, a typical lunch for me, as many colleagues can testify. I felt some resistance to the smell, texture, and taste of the food. I wasn’t sure why, but I really wasn’t enjoying it. I managed to finish my lunch, but it wasn’t nice.
The next day, the moment I looked at my chicken and broccoli, I didn’t want to eat them. I stared at them and tried to understand why I suddenly didn’t want to eat this delicious lunch that I had loved before. After a few minutes, I made myself start eating and barely finished my lunch. It was tough.
On the third day, I couldn’t do it. I felt so nauseated that I couldn’t even look at my chicken and broccoli. It turns out, as I found out later, that poultry and broccoli are some of the most common foods that make pregnant women nauseous. Who would have thought!
That day, I got rebellious. I was ravenous, so I went to the canteen and looked for things that I wanted to eat. It was a bit tough because not much seemed appetizing, but I still wanted to eat! Then, my eyes zeroed in on… pumpkin soup! There was this amazingly smelling pumpkin soup! I got two bowls of that soup. Suddenly, the idea of melted cheese in that soup seemed wonderful. I got several slices of gouda cheese and put them in the soup. My gooey, cheesy pumpkin soup seemed like the best thing in the world.
The problem was that pumpkin soup with cheese didn’t keep me full. Two hours later, I was hungry again, looking for the next thing. Nuts and bananas were okay, so I ate that, but bananas do spike my blood sugar, so after an hour or two I was hungry again. Then I ate a protein bar or something like that. Not great, but it got me through the day.
Pregnancy cravings and aversions
Protein really helps with gastritis because it helps me feel and stay full, which means I don’t get stomach pain. But my pregnancy cravings were for sugary or cheesy things, and I didn’t even want to look at meat. Chicken and fish were the worst, but I didn’t want to eat beef either. I tried to get some protein anyway by eating some form of animal protein and covering it with cheese. I also emphasized eggs (scrambled were okay, boiled tasted blah) and had some pea protein shakes as snacks. In terms of vegetables, I had to completely forgo broccoli and beets and instead ate cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and carrots.
It was difficult to make choices that worked well for my gastritis, so I was constantly dealing with ravenous hunger, cravings, aversions, and stomach pain. I also woke up every night around 3-4 am, extremely hungry and in pain. I had nuts (cashews, peeled almonds, or macadamias) next to my bed and ate a handful before even getting out of bed. In the mornings, before I got out of bed, my husband brought me a glass of bone broth with some lemon, which soothed my painful stomach and gave me some energy to get up, while the lemon tasted refreshing. This continued for two months. It was tough.
Then it just stopped
And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it all stopped. Week 13 was my last week of nausea, week 14 was a bit of a transition, and by week 15 it was gone. Such a relief! I felt like a normal person again with reasonable hunger and fullness cues. The gastritis pain also decreased. I was not ravenous and in pain between meals and at night anymore.
By now (at 24 weeks), I’m back to eating my regular way. I eat 3-4 meals a day, emphasizing protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables. I really enjoy fatty things like cheese and avocado, so I eat more of those than before I was pregnant. I’ve also become a fan of fruit (I didn’t care much about fruit in the past), so I eat peaches, cherries, or berries in the evening. Interestingly, I used to crave desserts before I was pregnant, while I don’t have such an interest in them now. I have an ice cream or some dark chocolate once in a while, but that’s kind of it.
I have to say that my gastritis is doing even better now than before I was pregnant. I think it’s because I don’t restrict my food intake now, but rather I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I often feel fine with only 3 meals a day, which I didn’t expect would be possible when pregnant.
Interestingly, pregnant women are often told that the cravings and the ravenous hunger really pick up in the second and third trimester. For me, it was the opposite: I had crazy cravings and hunger during the first trimester, and they died down from the second trimester onward (still waiting to see how the third trimester goes, of course). My weight gain also followed a similar path: I gained some weight in the first trimester, then remained stable in the fourth month (when you’re supposed to actually start gaining weight), and then started gaining gradually from the fifth month onward.
How much of this is due to gastritis?
My story only goes to show how differently pregnant bodies can respond to the massive change of pregnancy. A friend of mine had exactly the opposite where she was so sick during the first trimester that she lost weight. Then, once the second trimester rolled in and the nausea lifted, she got super hungry and gained weight quickly, resulting in a healthy weight for her and her baby.
I had the experience of ravenous hunger during the beginning of pregnancy and a gradual tapering off of hunger as well as of stomach pain as the pregnancy continued. Did my gastritis cause this, or was the increased gastritis pain a result of my changing metabolism and hormones? There’s no way to know, but I’m more likely to think it’s the latter.
That first trimester was a strange and difficult time for me, and I think that the gastritis pain was one of the consequences of all the changes going on. Unfortunately, adding irritated gastritis to the already challenging mix of early pregnancy symptoms made things more difficult but not unbearable. The little one and I made it through, and we’re doing fine now. I’m so glad that that chapter is over, and I hope it doesn’t return later in pregnancy. Bye bye, first trimester! See you in the next pregnancy! (Nooooooo…… Can’t I just skip the first trimester? :S)
Have you had a tough first trimester? Or a difficult stomach/gut condition? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.