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Pregnancy Diet: The GAPS Diet and Eating to Avoid Food Allergies

Taylor Hengen Newman

Because Kaspar, my toddler, has such severe food allergies – our family’s first experience of babyhood was far from a normal one – and because it took a couple of years to find our way through the health challenges we faced early on, it took me a while after that to even consider another pregnancy. As things settled (and kiddo finally slept well) here on the home front, though, I did come to consider it – and eventually, obviously, to dive in. From the moment I allowed pregnancy to become a real possibility in my mind again, I’ve been excited to have another baby, and also determined not to worry about the various what-if’s pregnancy inherently brings up. But I’ve also wanted to do whatever I can to tip the scales in our favor in terms of staving off food allergies and eczema in baby number two. It’s not one of the what-if’s that crosses most expecting moms’ minds, but it’s a huge one for me, this time around. I know we can handle it – and, unlike last time, we’ll know exactly what’s going on and exactly what to do – if our new little one shows similar symptoms to baby Kaspar’s, but it would be wonderful if we could, you know, skip that scene altogether. A ‘normal’ babyhood experience would be truly exceptional. It's what I’m hoping for.

I'd thought, pre-pregnancy, that the way I’d approach this would be to eliminate every food Kaspar's allergic to as soon as I got knocked up. The thing is, he’s allergic to a lot of foods, and used to be allergic to even more. Although I have avoided nuts since December (I ate them when pregnant with Kas, so decided against it this time), I haven’t actually gone with the initial, avoid-it-all plan. I’m certain that many of Kaspar’s food allergies developed after he was born, for one thing, and not at all certain that avoiding watermelon, for instance, will have any meaningful impact on the baby. In fact, I reached out to several moms with food allergy kids (shoutout to Erin R!), and asked them all two questions: I wanted to know if they modified their diets during subsequent pregnancies, and if those subsequent babies have any food allergies. One mom out of the five I spoke with did avoid certain foods while pregnant. The rest ate whatever they wanted to. None of the new siblings in my random (albeit small) sample group have food allergies. This wasn't exactly scientific, of course; I do know it’s statistically more likely that siblings of food allergy kids will, in fact, have some of those same issues. But it’s far from guaranteed, and hearing from these moms directly, proving this point, put my mind at ease.

stuffed peppers

Last night's dinner: stuffed peppers. (Click here for the recipe.) Nom.

My OB confirmed what my little DIY survey indicated, too. She said -- and we know this from our experience with Kaspar – that precious little is understood about what causes food allergies in kids. There are studies that show eating nuts in pregnancy, or while breastfeeding, contributes to babies’ developing nut allergies, and there are studies showing exactly the opposite (i.e. that eating nuts helps prevent them). My doc advised, in the absence of better research, to eat normally while pregnant. Even our TCM doctor (who knows a lot more about how to address food allergy issues, at least, than western doctors do) told me to focus on eating a well-rounded diet, and limiting stress. That’s it. I appreciated this across-the-board vote for food-choice freedom, especially in my first trimester, when, honestly, I craved – and consumed – a lot of crap I’d normally never touch. I’m talking mini Milky Ways, barbecue, breakfast tacos and pizza. (Whole Foods pizza, but, you know... definitely still greasy, wheat-y, meat-y pizza.)

Now that I'm just about entering my second trimester, however, I'm feeling less wonky on the appetite/cravings/nausea front (believe it or not, that nausea wanted pizza, and the pizza helped), and I'm focusing in on nutrition. I’ve continued doing my research and thinking about what I’ve learned through our experience with Kaspar – what’s helped him thus far, and how the immune system works (or, in the case of food allergies and many other health problems, misfires.) While I loved hearing from those moms that their second babies are allergy-free, I also know that Kaspar’s allergies, and his eczema, were more extreme than most food allergy kids’, even those whose lives, like Kaspar’s, are endangered by nuts, soy, and various other foods. Our allergist reminds us at each appointment that Kaspar’s allergy numbers – although, encouragingly, they're coming down – are among the highest he’s seen... and he sees allergy counts all day, ever day. I want to do what I can to ensure the new baby’s immune system is balanced, and functioning properly. I'll regret it if I don't. Western doctors know very little about the immune system in general, but that body of knowledge is expanding, and I’ve been nerding out on it for three years now, gleaning whatever’s relevant from every corner of the globe, seeking insight from a range of experts, researchers, health practitioners, doctors and other parents, and applying it in the ways that make sense for my child. The result has been that, instead of ‘toughing and waiting it out’ – the impossible, non-helpful prescription we received at the outset from Kaspar’s essentially bewildered docs – we’ve been able to help our kid heal. Surely, some of this knowledge can help our new baby start off on strong footing. And although I’m improvising, I have the reassurance of those other moms’ stories in the back of my mind; much of this is luck of the draw anyway, without much rhyme or reason. (I could probably keep on eating pizza and end up with an allergy-free kid.) But I feel I might as well try.

juice mustache

Kaspar, concentrating. And rocking his daily juice mustache.

I read a study while writing the Natural Parenting blog -- it just came across my news feeds one day -- that healthy probiotic gut flora in moms reduces eczema in infants. This makes sense, since most of the immune system (80%) resides in the gut – the digestive system. But how cool to know that a mom’s healthy gut can influence a baby’s immune system, too! So I've been exploring ways to establish gut health, and – through a chance conversation with another mom I know, some reading and some serious time on Google – have discovered, and am embarking on, a nutrient-rich, real-foods diet that is specifically designed to build and maintain a healthy gut... i.e. a healthy, balanced immune system. It’s called the GAPS diet – have you heard of it? – and it’s recommended for healing everything from food allergies to ADHD and even Autism. There’s actually a whole two-year (give or take), progressive gut-healing approach that’s recommended for people who need to heal from specific illnesses, but pregnant women are advised to go for the “full” GAPS diet from the outset. As it turns out, the full GAPS approach to eating is essentially the way we eat anyway, especially Kaspar (except he doesn’t eat nuts and eggs, which are a part of the full diet for those without severe allergies). Lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy meats, homemade broths – and lots of probiotic action. No grains, soy, processed sugar, processed fats (coconut oil and animal fat are encouraged) or processed foods in general. (If you’re interested in getting on the GAPS bandwagon, do read the book and some blogs – I’ve listed only basic guidelines.) So far, I miss grains; their reintroduction is allowed on the GAPS diet, but I want to give my own digestive system a break before doing so. Even without them, I feel well-fed – not hungry – and I’m excited for the potential this diet holds to help heal Kaspar’s gut further, as well. I think I’ll take our whole family through the progressive plan, once baby’s arrived and we’ve figured out our rhythm, but for now we’re grooving on GAPS in full. It probably would feel like a bigger change, and more work, if I hadn’t learned so much about food, in general, and been cooking like a fiend (Kaspar brings his own food everywhere) since Kas was born. I already have a raw milk source. (I’m off dairy, too, for the pregnancy, but Kaspar’s thrived on raw milk, and live yogurt -- click here for an easy recipe -- is a GAPS staple.) We already make, and drink, fresh vegetable and fruit juice every day. We already get a huge box of fresh, local produce from a nearby farm each week. We already eat “happy” meat. The additional changes I’m making don’t feel like a big deal. In fact, more of our meals now are entirely Kaspar-friendly, which means more fun, collaborative cooking for the whole family.

GAPS lunch

A GAPS-friendly, Kaspar-friendly school lunch. Clockwise from upper left: carrot sticks, raw cheddar cheese, ground bison cooked with vegetables, baked apples with apricots, coconut and honey. 

In addition to the GAPS diet, I’ve gotten a really good water filter system – a Berkey Royal System -- for our family, so as to remove Flouride and other chemicals from our water. I want to cut down on toxic overload and thus give the baby's (and my) immune system less work to do; drinking water is an often-overlooked source of chemicals that can cause serious harm to the body; unfortunately, the basic carbon filter systems most people have in their refrigerators don't remove the real nasties. I also talked to my OB, and our pediatrician, and we're not going to vaccinate the baby, at least not right away. I don’t necessarily feel that all kids shouldn’t be vaccinated, but given Kaspar's reactions to vaccines, and his general immune craziness, I don’t want to prod the baby’s immune system right away. Our doctors have said this is a fine decision; the baby will be home with us, breastfeeding and building its immune system, for at least the first six months. Not a lot of Hep B risk happening at that point, anyway.

And that, my friends, is the game plan; it’s pretty different from my first pregnany, after all. But it’s not stressful, or difficult, and I’m still allowed to eat watermelon.

Did you modify your diet in any way while pregnant? What were your favorite pregnancy foods? How about for those of you with allergy or eczema kids – did you switch things up in later pregnancies? Have any of you tried the GAPS diet for your kids, or your whole families? I look forward to reading your thoughts on this!