The Worst Advice I've Gotten From My Pregnancy App

I’ve always been a health-conscious eater. Even as a college student, I cooked most of my meals in my apartment while the rest of my friends and roommates chose the greasy food from the university cafeteria.

By Johanna Vann7 min read
Pexels/Matilda Wormwood

On paper, it looked like I did everything “right.” I followed conventional wisdom such as limiting my consumption of red meat (I even went completely plant-based every Monday for “meatless Mondays”), and I only grabbed lean meats in the grocery stores. I rarely consumed sugary foods like soda and candy. I didn’t consume much dairy (certainly not butter!), and if I ever did, I went for the low-fat versions because, in my head, fat made you fat. Most of my meals consisted of salads, lots of oats, and lean chicken breast with a mix of vegetables. 

While I always maintained a petite frame, the inside of my body told a different story. Any visit to my doctor revealed extremely low levels of vitamin D and anemia, and at the dentist, my mouth was always full of cavities. Things only intensified when I started having babies. 

With my first pregnancy, I was put on prescription strength vitamin D, and I was so anemic that my OB sent me to a specialist to try to find the root of my anemia. If that wasn’t bad enough, my mouth full of cavities went from needing more fillings to needing crowns and a root canal. 

My diet “prudency” had done nothing more than keep me thin, and we all know that health is so much more than your weight. 

Between my first and second pregnancies, none of my health issues resolved. The maternal specialist couldn’t figure out why I was anemic (a shot of B12 didn’t help), and both she and my dentist chalked up my misfortune to bad genetics. 

But I’d had enough. I started doing my own research and quickly discovered that all of my issues could be resolved with one simple shift: the food I was eating. Almost overnight, my diet changed dramatically. I started experimenting with dietary advice that was completely contrary to what I’d always been told by my parents and my public school teachers and what I saw on the covers of magazines and newspapers.

I quit meatless Mondays and instead vastly increased my intake of red meat and other forms of bone-in meat. I introduced beef liver into my diet, started regularly consuming high quality full-fat dairy (like milk, cheese, and yogurt), and stopped being afraid of butter. Butter, as well as tallow and lard, became my new go-to cooking fats. I also introduced new foods into my life that I’d never consumed before – fermented foods like sauerkraut and homemade kefir, as well as bone broth

What were the results? 

Six months after the birth of my second baby, blood work revealed astonishing results: normal levels of vitamin D and my hemoglobin levels were finally normal – I was no longer anemic. Moreover, a visit to my dentist (by this time I’d switched to a holistic dentist who was on board with my experiment) revealed strong, healthy teeth and zero cavities (despite him seeing teeth a year earlier that were demineralizing). I was so relieved that I almost cried – a long history of poor dental hygiene, despite thinking you were doing everything right, will do that to you. 

I’ve now been on this new journey of eating for more than two years and have continued to experience good results, including healthy pregnancies. 

Bad Advice from My Pregnancy App

I’m on my third pregnancy right now (my first pregnancy without anemia), but I still get excited to open my pregnancy app every single week for my update on this baby growing inside me. I love the cute illustrations of how big my baby is at that moment and what important bodily development is happening that week. It creates so much fun anticipation. 

My app usually offers good advice around what I’m experiencing that week of pregnancy…that is, until I got to week 18. There was one piece of advice this particular week that really gave me pause: 

Screenshot, Courtesy of Johanna Vann
Screenshot, Courtesy of Johanna Vann

Did you catch that?

It’s in that last sentence: “To satisfy your hunger and maximize nutrition, eat…healthy (unsaturated) fat.

Major facepalm…and a little steam coming out of my ears and nostrils, too.

I immediately knew this was bad advice for moms because, as I’ve learned over the years from books, research, and personal experience, saturated fat is crucial to not only good health but to healthy pregnancies as well. 

The Difference Between Saturated Fat and Unsaturated Fat

We could get really technical here, but I’m going to try and keep it simple because most of us don’t have a medical degree or a Ph.D. in nutrition (and we don’t need one to make good choices for our health, by the way). 

Put really simply, saturated fats are typically found in animal foods – think beef and poultry, dairy products, and eggs, as well as coconut oil. Their chemical makeup is what distinguishes them from unsaturated fats. 

Dr. Steven Lin, a holistic dentist and author of The Dental Diet, explains it this way: “In saturated fats, the carbon and hydrogen molecules in the fatty acid chains are all joined by single bonds. No other molecules can join the chain because all the bonds are ‘in use,’ or ‘saturated.’” This is what makes saturated fats solid at room temperature and less reactive to light and heat.

On the flip side, “in unsaturated fats, the carbon molecules in the fatty acid chains have at least one double bond. When two molecules are attached by a double bond, another molecule can potentially link up with them. They are not maxed out; they’re ‘unsaturated.’” This makes them liquid at room temperature and more reactive to heat. 

Consuming too much low-fat dairy increases women’s risk of anovulatory infertility.

Unsaturated fats come in two forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond. These are found in olive oil, peanut oils, and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds, which makes them more reactive. These are found in fatty fish and all industrial seed oils (canola, corn oil, soy oils, sunflower oil). Because these fats are so unstable, they oxidize easily, which releases free radicals into the body. 

While our bodies may benefit from some unsaturated fats, my pregnancy app was wrong to emphasize that over saturated fat. But I understand why they did that… 

Is Saturated Fat Really Bad for You?

Saturated fats have long been villainized by the USDA and prominent institutions like the Harvard School of Public Health. 

There’s a long history of how these institutions came to the conclusion that saturated fat causes higher levels of cholesterol and incidents of heart disease (I highly recommend the book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz for a deep dive into this history). This diet/heart hypothesis is what led to the creation of the food pyramid in 1992, which recommended 6-11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta while limiting meat and dairy to 2-3 servings. Let’s just pause for a moment and think about what would happen to our health if we ate 11 servings of bread and pasta in one day, but I digress. 

The USDA's Food Guide Pyramid, 1992
The USDA's Food Guide Pyramid, 1992

The most recent update to the USDA guidelines is called MyPlate and advises a quarter of our plate be filled with grains while limiting red meat, milk, cheese, and butter, and choosing canola oil as the fat of choice for cooking and salad dressings. 

The USDA’s MyPlate Guidelines, 2011
The USDA’s MyPlate Guidelines, 2011

Here’s what’s wrong with these recommendations: They’re not working. 

Fat consumption in the U.S. has declined in the last three decades, and yet we continue to see an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infertility.

Fats – especially saturated fats – are not the problem here.

I’m sure my pregnancy app was just following along with the ridiculous and backwards advice of the USDA, but the truth is, they have it all wrong, and we have research to prove it. A 2010 study found no association between saturated fat consumption and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. And four years later, another study concluded: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.” Not only did this study not show a link between saturated fats and poor cardiovascular health, but there also wasn’t enough evidence that polyunsaturated fats improved heart health. 

This is important because government recommendations influence the foods served in public schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and programs for moms and children like WIC – arguably places where nutrition couldn’t be more important to get right. This is why you would never find whole milk offered in a public school cafeteria, which is a travesty for growing children who need saturated fat for proper development.

Why Saturated Fats Matter in Pregnancy (and for Children)

Fat is an essential macronutrient (the three main macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat). Fats help our bodies absorb important vitamins like K, E, D, and A (that’s why these vitamins are called fat-soluble vitamins). Fats are an important component of our cell membranes. And fats make up 60% of the human brain. This is so important for a growing child because most of our brain growth is completed by five or six years old! Fat is crucial for brain development during both the fetal and the postnatal periods.

But they don’t just matter once a baby is conceived. Saturated fats have actually been shown to improve your chances of having a baby at all. In 2007, a fascinating study came out showing that women who consumed high-fat dairy products decreased their risk of experiencing infertility. In fact, consuming too much low-fat dairy increased women’s risk of anovulatory infertility (infertility due to an absence of ovulation). And what kind of fat do full-fat dairy products contain? Saturated fat.

So if good quality saturated fats help you get pregnant, why wouldn’t they also be needed to have a healthy pregnancy and build a healthy baby?

Saturated fats also matter in pregnancy because removing them from our diet (whether we’re pregnant or not), removes really critical foods from our diets. In the words of Nina Teicholz, Ph.D., real foods like red meat and dairy “are rich and unique sources of essential nutrients that cannot be found elsewhere. Diminishing these foods in our diets will – and in fact already has – resulted in nutritional deficiencies.”

58% of a mother’s mature breast milk is made up of saturated fat.

Teicholz points out that 40% of girls and women ages 12-21 are iron deficient. As I shared earlier, I was one of those women for much of my life, especially during my first two pregnancies. This is critical information during pregnancy because women who are iron deficient put their unborn babies at risk for developmental delays.

And before you think you can fix iron deficiency by eating more spinach, think again. As Teicholz points out, “The type of iron humans can easily absorb (heme) comes not from spinach – sorry, Popeye – but from red meat. (Only about 10% of the iron in plant foods can be absorbed.) Other nutrients mainly found in meat and dairy in a form that humans can well absorb are vitamins B12, A, and D3 as well as calcium.” Without these fat-soluble vitamins, our bodies struggle to absorb other nutrients as well, like zinc.

It’s no wonder my teeth were suffering for so much of my life despite eating large quantities of plant foods.

Finally, I won’t forget to mention that 58% of a mother’s mature breast milk is made up of saturated fat. That should be enough to tell us we need this kind of fat in our diets to build healthy babies and produce the most nutrient-dense breast milk for their growth and development.

Thinking Critically, Logically, and Sustainably 

I wanted to offer something that has been incredibly helpful to me on my health journey: thinking critically and logically about our food. 

When in doubt, I ask myself: What food option is closest to nature? What makes the most sense in terms of sustainability (as in, what produces the least amount of waste and what makes the most sense in my local environment)? 

So let me leave you with some vital questions connected to this topic of saturated fat: 

1. If you could only eat seasonally and locally (which is what we should strive to do), what would you eat in the winter months when fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t readily available because of growing seasons? 

If you believe that cows cause climate change (like I once did), I highly encourage you to check out the work of Diana Rodgers, RD. She’s written books and produced an important documentary on how regenerative agriculture improves the environment and can even reverse climate change. On the other hand, shipping in bananas and avocados from South America so that we can have fresh produce in the winter months doesn’t do much to help the environment. 

2. If we didn’t have access to industrial factories, what kind of cooking fats would be readily available to you? 

You can make butter by shaking cream in a mason jar for 10 minutes. Tallow and lard are easily provided when we cook our meats. Canola oil, on the other hand, can only be produced using industrial equipment in a factory. Could that really be better for our health? 

Canola oil can only be produced using industrial equipment in a factory. Could that really be better for our health? 

3. If we should only eat lean meats, what are we to do with the rest of the animal? Throw it away? 

Our ancestors and even modern day hunter/gatherer tribes believe in “nose to tail” eating – no part of the animal goes to waste. In fact, many of these tribes today feed the “lean” parts of animals to their dogs because the fattier options are more nutrient dense. And yet, they don’t experience obesity and other chronic illnesses like our modern world. 

4. If we give up animal foods, how will consuming more refined grains and sugar impact our health? 

Giving up animal foods often means consuming more grains and sugar to make up for calories lost. Eggs and bacon are replaced with cereal and plant-based milk (which often contains synthetic vitamins and seed oils in an attempt to try and match the nutritional profile of cow’s milk). A steak is replaced with a charred mushroom. These are weak substitutes that leave us depleted and, dare I say, hungry

5. What did humans eat before the advent of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and the other chronic illnesses we face today? 

These are modern illnesses that our ancestors didn’t experience to the same degree before the advent of highly refined, processed foods and oils. The U.S. has seen obesity triple since 1980, for example. 

Closing Thoughts

I’ve been reading through the Little House on the Prairie series, and it’s a sweet reminder of the way the first settlers lived and survived in this country. They were homesteaders who grew their own food and consumed large amounts of animal foods because it’s what they had access to year-round. They saved their bacon grease to cook their eggs and treasured butter when it was available. Sugar, on the other hand, was a rare luxury. Today, the standard American diet looks the complete opposite.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt more free to enjoy all the beautiful foods nature has to offer. Not only does the real research prove it’s okay, but ancestral wisdom and common sense reassures us, too. 

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