How An Unhealthy Relationship With Food Can Impact Pregnancy

by Kerry Hansen
Originally Published: 
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I probably ate a McDonald’s happy meal at least once a week throughout my early childhood. In fact, I had my 5th birthday party at a McDonald’s—and I can distinctly remember two other friends’ birthdays at two other McDonald’s.

I was both praised and incentivized with food. “If you’re good today, you’ll get ice cream.” “It’s your birthday—you can eat whatever you want.” “You’re on vacation—don’t worry about calories.”

My mother has an awful Christmas sweatshirt she wears every year that says, “Christmas calories don’t count!” My husband and I always roll our eyes at the shirt, but the methodology behind the message was a driving force of my childhood. Eat! It’s Christmas! You can have as much candy as you want—it’s Halloween!

I had pizza for dinner every Friday night until I went off to college. My parents still have Pizza Fridays. Ground beef was the foundation of the majority of dinners—spaghetti with meat sauce, tacos, sloppy joes, meatloaf, a variety of Hamburger Helper. Salad was an afterthought—an occasional side dish that I learned to drown in ranch dressing.

Oddly, my mom drew the line at sugary cereals, Oreos, and Kool-aid, so I eagerly sought these out when I went to friends’ houses for sleepovers. Food was joy. And food was therapeutic.

I saw my obese father come home from a hard day’s work, pour himself several Scotches, and eat his stress away with several man-sized portions of meat and potatoes.

As a pre-teen at a family cookout, I walked into a conversation among my father and various aunts and uncles about what traits different children had inherited from their parents. I asked my dad what I had inherited from him and without looking at me, he replied, “My appetite.”

Arriving at college, I drew a blank in the cafeteria, not sure how to balance a meal. Many a night, I had mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and frozen yogurt. Some of my friends would gravitate toward the salad line so I’d tag along, and I eventually learned how to put together a really delicious salad. However, living within proximity of frat parties, vending machines, and pizza delivery, I stayed doughy for years.

All of these things come to mind because I’m now pregnant and I find myself thinking about food in a completely different way. This isn’t to say that I haven’t spent my adult life carefully considering the food I eat. As a chubby child who grew into an overweight girl and then a weight-fluctuating woman, not a day goes by that I don’t think about food in relation to my body. Not a mirror is passed by without sucking in my stomach.

I can remember my mom holding a camera up to her face to take my picture and prefacing “Say Cheese!” with “Hold that tummy in!”

That’s why it’s hard to process the fact that my belly is now expanding on purpose. In my twenties, when a boyfriend would glance at my torso, I would silently lament that he must be evaluating my fat stomach. So it frightens me to think that my pregnant mid-section will be a focal point for the next seven months. It will be the first thing anyone sees, although it will be celebrated and adored and (gasp!) rubbed. Food has been my constant companion and biggest enemy for so long that it feels foreign to make peace with it and be told that I should be eating more.

I read that pregnant women should eat around 300 more calories per day than they ate in their pre-pregnancy diet. But pre-pregnancy, my diet was anything but consistent. Do I add 300 to the days of sometimes punishing myself by only eating about a thousand calories? Or do I add 300 to instances where I gorged myself on carbs and alcohol because I was planning to start dieting on Monday? What if I used to purge some of my calories now and then?

My baby’s health is of the utmost importance to me, and I want to give him or her the healthiest start at life that I possibly can. But I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around good pregnancy nutrition when my own food demons aren’t completely gone.

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