Writer and broadcaster

Let us eat cake. Published in The Independent.

Some people go their whole existence without discovering the meaning of life. Me, I found the answer one freezing February morning, while taking a stroll around a little piazza in Italy. And the answer was crisps.

My mind had been beaten into submission by my eight-weeks pregnant body, which was now completely in control. As I ate my patatine San Carlo, I felt completely fantastic – restored, rebalanced. Before getting pregnant, and until that Thursday morning, I had been a nutritional Nazi. All my carbohydrates came in unrefined form as vegetables or fruit; I ate no bread, pasta or potatoes. My meals were a perfect balance of good fat, carbs and protein. I felt, and looked, fabulously healthy.

When I got pregnant I thought, “great, I already eat really well.” Until week seven, I had no problems and stuck to my regular eating regime. Between weeks eight and nine, well, that’s when the crisps found their way into my hands, not to mention the hunks of Italian bread, bowls of pasta, little cakey treats… I still struggled to keep to my old way of eating until I got back to England, in week nine, and almost passed out in Marks & Spencer, carrying a basket laden with pre-pregnancy food – lean chicken, broccoli and fish – that my body just did not want. My boyfriend came to get me, and said: “That’s it, you have to eat what your body’s telling you to.” For the next fortnight, this turned out to be French bread and frankfurters, neither of which I had touched in years. But I felt wonderful.

As I started to tell people I was pregnant, the second thing they said to me was, “Are you still eating in that way? Forget it. All you’ll want is refined carbohydrates.” I made an appointment for a confessional with my nutritionist, Vicki Edgson. “Vicki,” I sobbed, “I’ve been eating crisps. I know you think they’re the devil’s work.” “Listen,” she said. “I have a motto for pregnancy: let the baby tell you what it wants. I’ve seen this happen so many times. A person’s got great habits before pregnancy, then they find themselves eating utter crap, and they can’t understand it. Nature is an extraordinary thing – you crave certain foods because you need specific nutrients. A diet high in vegetables and salads may be clean food, but it’s not enough to build a baby. The change happens because you and your baby need energy, and refined carbs provide the fastest source of it. And if your body is naturally low in sodium, you may need more in pregnancy – what quicker way to deliver it than in crisps!” (I was too frightened to tell her about the frankfurters.) She went on to tell me about fellow nutritionists who had fallen pregnant and come to work carrying bags laden with bagels and croissants, red-hot with guilt.

All the pregnancy books and websites tell you to eat well: lean protein, vegetables, that sort of thing. One even said: “Cravings have nothing to do with what the body actually needs; if it did, you’d be craving broccoli.” “I’m sorry, but this is rubbish,” said a mother of two. “The broccoli sat in my fridge taunting me throughout pregnancy, while all I wanted was apple turnovers.” Whereas my body had once told me it wanted lean chicken, mackerel, sardines, five-fruit smoothies and bloody broccoli, trying to eat any of that now made me feel sick. What my body wanted was breaded chicken, fish-fingers, sausages, avocados, Babybels, pasta coated in Philadelphia, potatoes, chocolate (rich in iron!), red meat, eggs and lots and lots of milk. Only in week 20 did it allow me vegetables and salads, and then only in the afternoon. Actually, all my diet needed was a little retuning and once I understood why, the guilt was abated.

In the first few weeks, all I wanted was toast and jam for my breakfast, but I wouldn’t let my body have it, instead giving it toast and scrambled egg. This seemed to be an excellent plan, as eggs contain all the amino acids that are essential building blocks for life. What I needed most, however, was energy – hence the craving for an almost entirely refined-carbohydrate breakfast. Eventually I gave in, eating jam with the kind of relish most people reserve for caviar. On the few mornings I made myself drink my pre-pregnancy smoothies, I literally gagged. “In the morning,” explains Edgson, “you’ve probably not eaten for 10 hours [except for the early weeks when I had to get up at 2am to eat a bowl of Shreddies]. By this point you’re almost self-consuming, and your body will reject anything that will take it a long time to break down.”

The body is so desperate for energy first thing that anything “complicated” is deemed just too much of a waste of time, and the body will reject it. This was why I couldn’t even contemplate salads, veg or fruit until the afternoon, when I had built up my energy stores. “This isn’t done on any intelligent basis. Your body is favouring foods it can access rapidly, not necessarily what your mind tells you is nutritionally dense. In various stages of development there’s so much glucose [energy] used up on a hourly basis, you [the mother] can be left with very little.”

My insane craving for milk wasn’t just due to it being a valuable calcium source, either. As Penny Povey, head medical herbalist at Farmacia, explains: “Refined carbohydrates can interfere with the absorption of calcium and magnesium.” Because of the amount of refined carbs I was eating, I needed even more calcium than a “regular” pregnant woman. The milk I wanted was goat’s milk (which, despite what some people say, is fine as long as it’s pasteurised), which is much easier to digest than cow’s (in Italy they used to give it to babies as a substitute for mother’s milk).

I’m now in week 28 of my pregnancy, and have found the official guidelines on what pregnant women can and can’t eat pretty useless. It’s all very well telling us that we should eat well, but there is no reassurance or explanation about the foods you might find yourself craving. Recent research from Southampton University also shows that what you were accustomed to eating before you got pregnant is vital, as this lays down your “larder”. My larder may have been exemplary, but it was lacking in readily available energy.

The official guidelines also don’t give enough information about the sort of nutrients, as well as the food types, that a woman needs, or where she might get them if she can’t stomach the “recommended” things. Nuts are often avoided by pregnant women (and peanuts should be by those with a history of allergies), yet they are a valuable source of selenium (brazil nuts), which is excellent for brain construction, calcium (almonds) and vitamin E (hazelnuts), not to mention “good” fat and protein. Because raw seafood is not advised (with good reason), some women – myself included for a while – ignore an insane craving for prawn mayonnaise sandwiches. (While we’re on this subject, almost all shop-bought mayo is fine for pregnant women, as it’s made with pasteurised egg.) Prawns, however, are high in zinc, which is one of the most important minerals for pregnant women and their babies. It boosts the immune system, helps avoid stretch marks, keeps nails strong, activates enzymes, helps the release of vitamin A, builds strong bones, aids growth in general… All pretty important stuff, then, yet it’s not mentioned once in the NHS pregnancy book that every pregnant woman is (supposed to be) given.

My biggest problem was eating enough omega-3s now that I had an aversion to oily fish. These are essential to keep your skin soft and plump – look out for cracked heels or the onset of eczema or psoriasis, as this is a classic sign that the baby is supping all your fatty acids and leaving you short. Lack of them has also been linked to post-natal depression. They are also vital to the nervous system and the building of a brain. (Plus, a foetus is made up almost entirely of fatty tissue.) The answer here is linseeds [flaxseeds – gotbeer], one of the few vegetable sources of omega-3: crushed in a coffee grinder, they can be sprinkled on porridge, or (my solution) mixed with water and gulped down. Linseeds have a wonderful side effect, too: they relieve constipation entirely naturally (be sure to drink lots of water, though, as linseeds add bulk to your intestine and without water this can be painful). The pregnancy books will tell you constipation can be relieved with lots of fruit and veg. Fine, if you can stomach them; if you can’t, you’re stuffed.

Dos and don’ts of prenatal nutrition

* Crisps are great for morning sickness. Just make sure to buy those that are as pure as can be.

* Cranberry juice (or supplements) is a good preventative against urinary tract infections, as long as it’s not sweetened with sugar, which can exacerbate the problem.

* Liquorice (if you can tolerate it) is good for those with iron deficiencies or low blood pressure.

* If you find water is going straight through you, drink it warm.

* Take care with herbal teas. They may seem like a healthy option, but not all of them are safe to take during pregnancy. Ginger for example, can be a uterine stimulant.

* Papaya extract is great for indigestion and heartburn.

* Dark chocolate is rich in iron.