Lessons in Intuitive Eating from the First Trimester of Pregnancy

Even though I thought I had reached a place of stability in my relationship with food and my body prior to becoming pregnant and felt ready for the changes to come, I was shocked by just how challenging the first trimester of pregnancy was for me in terms of my body image. I know that many other women can relate…because the bump tends to take its sweet time to show up!

Ultimately, I believe that the root cause of my struggle in the first trimester had to do with my heart more than anything, the cultural pressures placed on pregnant women certainly didn’t help. At the end of the day, the changes in my hunger and physique highlighted to me the fact that I still had, and have, work to do in terms of letting go of control, accepting my body, and trusting God, who made me.

As with most things in life, much of my frustration came down to unrealistic expectations. Almost every pregnancy resource that I read talked about how most women “should” only gain 25-35 pounds in pregnancy, and that we “shouldn’t” gain more than 1-5 pounds in the first trimester. Blog after blog and book after book said that I should expect to feel too nauseated to eat in the first trimester, and that the second trimester would bring ravenous hunger. That was not my experience in the first trimester and, as we know, when expectation and experience don’t match up, discontentment is invited into the equation. (As a side note, the experience I was told to expect in the second trimester also has not been what I’ve experienced. But that’s another post for another time.)

When expectation doesn’t match experience, it begets frustration.

I was actually extremely hungry starting from about 4 weeks pregnant, just a few days after I first saw a positive test. I thought this was a little strange, but it didn’t bother me too much until the nausea kicked in at 6 weeks. But instead of queasiness killing my appetite, it made me feel like I constantly needed to eat something. If my stomach got empty, I felt like I was going to throw up. It wasn’t the usual kind of nausea like I have experienced when I have a stomach bug or something. It was like an uncomfortable combination of gurgling hunger and feeling like I wanted to gag. Ginger helped a little, preggie pops helped a little, seltzer helped a little and peppermint helped a little. But the only thing that really helped was eating carb-type foods…and even then, it only helped for a an hour or two.

The food aversions were also extremely difficult to cope with. Previously, I felt really good centering my meals around meat and vegetables, and including a carb food that I enjoyed as a side dish. All of a sudden, starting around 6 weeks, vegetables and meat made me want to gag. The only thing that felt good in my stomach was ice water and bread or crackers. Occasionally I could stomach eggs, or sweet potatoes, but anything that had a distinct smell or taste would quickly become a new food aversion after a couple days. It was completely overwhelming. My body was behaving so differently not only from what I was used to, but differently from what I expected. The pregnancy books/blogs didn’t help at all. They all had suggestions like “eat small meals, but make sure you eat healthy! Remember you’re not actually supposed to be eating for two!” I didn’t feel good eating only carbs (by any means) but it was the only way I could avoid feeling horrible. (I still felt awful much of the time, anyway.) And frankly, yes. I was eating nearly twice as much as I usually ate.

By my second appointment, I had already gained in the double digits. I broke down in tears in response to a comment made by the midwife’s nurse about my weight gain, and was shocked by how hurt I felt. In my heart, I knew that it is normal for women to gain weight in a variety of different patterns throughout their pregnancies, so why was this nurse showing me so much condemnation? Pregnancy is an extremely vulnerable state, both physically and emotionally, and the last thing any woman needs is to be shamed for her weight. Ugh!

After that appointment, I did two things: I changed providers, and I resolved not to pay attention to my weight. I understand why it’s a provider’s job to monitor weight gain, but I don’t need to know what that number is. (Previously to pregnancy, I didn’t weigh myself regularly, but had no problem seeing the number at appointments. It didn’t phase me much.) At my first appointment with my new midwife, I stood on the scale backwards and asked the nurse to put a note in my chart that I didn’t want to see my weight. She was so understanding about it, and it made me feel so much better knowing that I didn’t have to think about it anymore. But, I digress…

Ultimately, the unexpected changes in my hunger and the size/shape of my body really threw me for a loop in the first trimester. It was sort of an out-of-body experience in the sense that my body didn’t feel like the one I was used to or the way I expected it to feel. It forced me to redirect my attention away from expectations and feelings about my body and instead start to process the underlying factors that were prompting me to focus on external, unimportant factors. Here’s what else I learned:

I learned about weight stigma in a new, personal way.

Prior to my first appointment, I had never been the recipient of weight-critical comments from a healthcare provider. It felt awful—shame-inducing, embarrassing, and shocking because the purpose of the appointment wasn’t supposed to be about the number on the scale, but rather on the life growing inside of me. It’s sobering to realize that this is how so many women (and men) feel every time they see a healthcare provider. And it’s a tragedy.

I learned that body acceptance and trust is a lifelong process.

Okay, so I knew this in theory. But throughout recovery, I only had one, relatively brief season of body changes before everything stabilized. I got used to my body staying the same (ish) and even when I gained a few pounds over the course of a few months, it was so gradual that I hardly noticed. With this pregnancy, though, my clothes stopped fitting within just four weeks. I noticed dramatic changes in my external appearance and the way my body felt (tired, nauseous). I had to learn to cope with the fact that my body was changing even though the reason wasn’t outwardly apparent to other people. I felt defensive about my weight gain at first, finding myself wanting to explain it away by saying I was pregnant, yet I couldn’t because I had a plan for when I wanted to share the news at work (read: not the first trimester.) Then, one day I realized that my desire to “explain” my changing body was coming from a place of shame. I do not need to be ashamed of my body, no matter its size or shape, no matter the reason that its size or shape may change.

Bodily acceptance feels a lot easier when things sort of stay the same. It feels like you do the work once, and then tune it up when needed. But with such rapid changes, it feels like every week I’m presented with a new body that I need to learn how to accept. Looking towards the future, I know that I will undergo a similar rate of change throughout the postpartum period, then again when my husband and I conceive another child (God willing.) My body will continue to change throughout my adult life, and each time that happens I will need to surrender my ideas and expectations and trust that God knows what he is doing with my body.

I learned that it’s important to not have expectations about my body.

The irony about my first trimester struggles was that I did expect my body to change throughout my pregnancy (I mean, duh.) But I didn’t expect it to change that much, that soon. But these expectations came from an unrealistic standard with next to no physiological basis, yet they somehow are advertised in almost every midwife/OB’s office, on almost every pregnancy blog, to almost every pregnant mama. These expectations beget shame and suffering, two things that have no place in a healthy pregnancy—at least on account of a person’s body shape or size.

So anyway, having expectations simply breeds discontentment, and my goal for my pregnancy (and life in general) is not to fixate on the size or shape of my body but to fill my mind and heart with thoughts about the bigger plans of God.

If you’re a mama, I’d love to know about your experiences!

Share in the comments below!

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