An Honest Look at Nutrition and Exercise Through Pregnancy

Natasha 1 pic By: Natasha van der Merwe, professional triathlete and expectant mother.

When you find out you’re pregnant, your mind is flooded with thoughts and concerns. As an athlete, my first two questions were, “What do I eat?” and “What amount of exercise is safe?” I began researching other professional athletes’ journeys through pregnancy and was immensely inspired by their continued levels of physical activity throughout each stage. I was determined to do the same.

Well, sitting at almost 38 weeks pregnant, what I can say for sure is that one size doesn’t fit all. I went into this pregnancy thinking I was going to eat perfectly, knowing that everything I ate was being passed on to my baby girl. Soon enough, though, I realized how hard it was to stay regimented during the ups and downs of pregnancy. Not even two weeks into my pregnancy, I fell into “survival eating,” struggling to get my energy levels high enough to go to work—let alone trying to exercise an hour or two a day, as I had envisioned.

So what did I eat and how much did I exercise throughout my pregnancy? My diet and fitness routines varied greatly during each trimester.


Natasha van der Merwe 3 months pregnant

1st Trimester


My ideal meals consisted of:

Breakfast:  Eggs and avocado on whole wheat toast

Lunch: Vegetable stir fry or something similar

Snacks: Fruit and mixed nuts

Dinner: A large salad with steak

Iron requirements climb during pregnancy, from 15-18mg per day for healthy adult women, to 27mg per day to support the extra blood volume needed to circulate for both mom and baby.  With that in mind, I made sure to eat steak or lean red meat, 3-4 times per week.

The Institute of Medicine recommends pregnant women drink 12-13 cups of water per day in temperate climates. With the daily temperatures clocking in at 100 degrees in Austin, TX most days, and with my added activity, I was closer to the 18-20 cups, or 140-160 oz, of water per day.

I was totally expecting to be hungrier or eat more than normal, but that wasn’t the case at all. While eating close to 3000 calories a day is easy when you’re training 25 + hours a week, it’s more difficult to maintain when your activity levels drop. My “new” typical day of eating became closer to 1500-2000 calories a day.


While I never got sick, I did feel nauseous many days and extremely tired. This kept me doing very little exercise, at first.

After those initial rough weeks, on the days that I did feel good, I chose an exercise that sounded most appealing. For me, that was running. I actually got into a groove about a month into my pregnancy and found myself running 5-7 miles most days. It felt amazing doing so, because it gave me so much energy for the rest of the day and allowed me to sleep better at night.


Natasha van der Merwe - six months pregnant

Natasha van der Merwe – 6 months pregnant

2nd Trimester

(The honeymoon phase of pregnancy)


As you have all heard many times before, the 2nd trimester is when things start to normalize. Most nausea and food aversions seemed to disappear and I found myself back to my regular diet, pre-pregnancy, and eating well most days.


Because I was feeling so much better, I was able to resume a decent level of activity. I stuck to the goal of 1 hour a day of “something”. I started alternating swim, bike and run workouts throughout the week. Nothing ground breaking, but not too bad. I did decide to stop running at around the 22 week mark and regretted that shortly after. I just found that I was too uncomfortable to have a decent run. But looking back, I should have just slowed down, or implemented walk intervals into my run. I will definitely try do that differently if we decide, and are fortunate enough, to have a 2nd child.

Natasha Van Der Merwe

Natasha Van Der Merwe – 7.5 months pregnant

3rd Trimester


During the start my final months, I have to admit, I reached a place in my mind where I would eat things I typically wouldn’t eat when trying to get in shape. Similar to the “I am going on a diet tomorrow” mentality, I started a bad trend of indulging those temptations a little too much. Unfortunately, the cost of doing so drastically reduced my already-limited energy levels. So that mentality lasted all but 2 days, and now I am back to eating healthy so I can finish out these final weeks with as much energy as possible.


Up until 34 weeks or so, I was able to spin on my trainer at home about 3-4 times a week, for 30 min to an hour. But the hour was reduced to 30 min and then 0 minutes as it got more and more uncomfortable for me.

I replaced cycling with swimming, which I am able to do about 5 times per week. This type of exercise seems to be the friendliest on the body, and is extremely refreshing and energizing in the summer heat of Austin.

An Honest Look

My guess is that you didn’t expect this kind of diet and exercise from a professional triathlete who works at a world class training facility. I definitely fell very short from anything I read about what my fellow triathletes were doing during their pregnancies. I just had to embrace the fact that each body and pregnancy is different. By just relaxing, and taking what my body gave me, I tried to make the best decisions for my baby and me.

No doubt, I could have done more, but this was a refreshing break from a rigid routine I have stuck with for so long. It has been a pleasure to just enjoy exercise without thinking about the next goal or race ahead. In my case, the next race is one filled with unpredictable twists and turns, and this pregnancy has left me mentally fresh to take it head-on. We are so excited!

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