French Advice for Eating Well During Pregnancy, and Common Myths Explored
Moving to France I heard a variety of bizarre claims about how French women don’t follow the basic dietary laws of pregnancy known to all Anglophone women:
- “French pregnant women have a glass of red wine each day!”
- “French women drink loads of coffee”
- “French women keep eating unpasteurized cheeses throughout pregnancy”
- “French women barely gain any weight, and after birth they leave the hospital in their pre-pregnancy pants!”
So I have been very curious to find out whether French women follow different guidelines, and whether these statements are true or not. I’ll start by addressing these claims and finish with French lifestyle tips for staying healthy throughout pregnancy.
Myths Debunked: The Forbidden Foods
Sorry ladies, but at least among the locals I know, French women do indeed avoid alcohol, improperly cooked food (cheese, meat, fish), and moderate their caffeine intake. They crave sushi, wine, and brie for 9 months, just like the rest of us deprived English-speaking pregnant folk.
There are some nuances to the guidelines that they know about that many Americans may not. For example, local cheese experts will advise you that only unpasteurized soft cheeses are risky, whereas the hard cheeses of any kind are acceptable. Sometimes a cheese itself can be safe, but the rind (the rigid material surrounding the cheese) may be contaminated. If you walk into a reputable fromagerie (artisanal cheese store), the vendor should be able to tell you which individual cheeses are safe choices.
Also some women are exempt from avoiding undercooked meat, and French women are more likely to fall under into this group. The reason behind consuming only well cooked meat is to avoid a toxoplasmosis infection. Although toxoplasmosis is a mild infection in healthy adults, this tiny organism can cause catastrophic effects on the developing fetus if the mother gets infected during pregnancy. However, if a woman contracted the infection before pregnancy, there is no increased risk to the child. Since French and European women eat more raw meats in their diet they may be less susceptible to the dangers of toxoplasmosis during pregnancy because they are more likely to have already had the disease. While only 10-20% of women are immune to toxoplasmosis in the United States, some 40-60% of French women are immune, and may therefore enjoy their filet mignon medium-rare. As a family member in Belgium explained to me, “I am already toxoplasmosis positive, therefore I don’t worry about raw meat.”
The only French women that seem to resist modern medical prenatal dietary recommendations are women of the older generation. “Well when I was pregnant I didn’t know about these dangers, and my kids came out fine!” And on the subject of foie gras, “mais il faut vivre!” (you must live a little!) But of the people I know, who are admittedly quite well educated and recently mothers, all followed the rules carefully, and my doctor grilled me for the first few visits to make sure I understood all the recommendations.
Myths Debunked: Prenatal weight gain
One of the biggest myths I’ve heard is that French women are told to follow different pregnancy weight gain guidelines. In actuality, the recommendations are the same: French doctors recommend a net gain of 12 – 15 kg during pregnancy, which corresponds to about 26 – 33 lbs. The real difference is that French women actually tend to stay within or below these limits, and therefore gain less than their American counterparts. For more details on how French women gain weight during pregnancy click here.
This brings me to something the French are doing much better than the Americans: they are fantastic at controlling their diet and weight gain throughout pregnancy. What are their secrets??
French Lifestyle Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy
The French pregnancy mantra is on n’a pas à manger deux fois plus! This means, don’t eat for two! Dietary advice is publicly made available by the government for all pregnant women with very practical and specific advice. Here are some eating hacks I’ve stolen from the French so you can achieve your belly-only pregnancy!
- Add a snack into your daily routine if you find yourself hungry. This assumes you are like most French women who do not snack in between meals (darn that iron fisted self control!).
The government even gives specific examples of acceptable snacks that I find hilariously French:
- Meals still need to portion controlled. For an idea of how much French people eat for a major meal, here’s a nice diagram:
- There are three and only three acceptable French ways to increase the size of your meals: (1) Add a yogurt, (2) Eat a piece of fruit, or (3) Eat a larger portion of vegetables.
- The French are very concerned with preventing cravings. What is their secret? Make sure to include grains and vegetables with every meal, and spread out your meals throughout the course of the day so you eat the same amount but you are eating more often. I imagine there’s some serious discipline at work here too although no French person will ever admit that.
- Avoid sugary and fatty foods! Increasing your food intake does not mean letting yourself eat unhealthy food. French people will rarely pass judging looks for your food choices, but the one time I walked into a Burger King with my obvious baby bump to pick up dinner for the hubby, I got so many death glares I was truly scared for my life.
- If you suffer from heartburn, nausea, or indigestion, start eating more frequent and lighter meals.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day.
- Don’t forget to move move move! French women do not stop being active when they are pregnant. Here are pregnancy specific French exercise recommendations, or general French lifestyle hacks to include activity in your daily routine.
- For more information and tips on general French dietary recommendations, click here.
- See mangerbouger.fr for the official French dietary guidelines for pregnancy, or shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to send you the detailed guide (in French)