Most of us know that eating a healthy, balanced diet will help to keep us fit and healthy and prevent disease in later life, but few of us think seriously about our food until we start to plan a pregnancy. That is when we realise that what we eat will affect not just our health but also the health of the baby.
What you eat in the months before conception can be just as important as what you eat during pregnancy and what you feed your baby in the first few months of life. And the benefits are not all for the baby. Taking time to get your nutrition right may help conception and fertility and can help keep you healthy and well throughout your pregnancy.
The most important place to start is with a healthy balanced diet. The food pyramid is an excellent guide to all the foods you should be eating as well as those you may need to cut back on. Have a look at the food pyramid on the website of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute which will take you step by step through all you need to know about healthy eating.
Keep a food diary for a week and write down all your meals, snacks and drinks and compare it to the advice on the food pyramid. Are you getting 3 servings of dairy everyday? Are you getting 5 portions of fruit and vegetables? Are you eating fish twice a week? The food diary is one way of knowing for sure if you are meeting your nutritional targets. Remember both partners will benefit from doing this – men and women need good nutrition for optimal fertility.
Some specific foods and nutrients are important. Probably the most essential nutrient to think about when planning a pregnancy is folic acid. This vital B vitamin is essential in preventing neural tube defects in developing babies. Neural tube defects include conditions like spina bifida and anencephaly that can seriously affect the development and health of babies. It is estimated that up to 75% of neural tube defects could be prevented by women taking folic acid supplements for 10-12 weeks before becoming pregnant and for 12-14 weeks after conception. As up to 50% of pregnancies in Ireland are unplanned, it is recommended that all women of childbearing years take a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms everyday.
The second thing to consider is your weight. Being over weight or underweight can affect the delicate hormonal balance your body needs to become pregnant. Women make oestrogen in both their ovaries and their fat cells. Too few fat cells and your body doesn’t have enough oestrogen, too many fat cells and your body makes too much.
Either way, the change in the balance of oestrogen can have a big impact on how easy it is for you to get pregnant. If you are overweight, avoid crash dieting to lose weight as you miss out on some of the valuable nutrients that are needed for pregnancy. If you are overweight or underweight and thinking about becoming pregnant, contact a qualified dietitian for advice on the best way to get to your healthy weight.
Omega-3 fats are also important to consider. Omega-3 fats are essential for the development of the baby’s spinal cord, nerves, eyes and brain and these all begin to develop very early in pregnancy, often before you know you are pregnant. Fat makes up almost 60% of the dry weight of the brain and most of this is DHA, an omega-3 fat found in oil-rich fish. DHA is also needed for healthy sperm so it is just as important that men make sure they are getting enough of this important nutrient as women.
You can take supplements of fish oils that will give you omega-3 but these are not recommended for women trying to become pregnant as they often have high levels of vitamin A – too much vitamin A may lead to miscarriage. One of the best ways to get omega-3 fats is by eating oil-rich fish such as herring, sardines or mackerel at least once a week before and during pregnancy.
Iron is another important nutrient to consider when you are thinking about becoming pregnant. Most women in Ireland don’t eat enough iron and iron is essential in helping both you and your baby to make healthy blood throughout the pregnancy. Iron supplements are not recommended in the first few months of pregnancy so it is vital that you have a good store of iron from your diet.
Iron-rich foods include red meat, oil-rich fish, shellfish and poultry such as chicken and turkey. It is recommended that you eat some of these foods everyday. You will also get iron from green leafy vegetables, pulses and fortified breakfast cereals, although if you are vegetarian or vegan you need to be particularly careful about getting enough iron from these foods. Taking food rich in vitamin C with meals will boost iron absorption – include salads, fruit and fruit juice in meals. Cut back on foods that are high in tannins like tea and red wine as tannins can reduce the absorption of iron.
Finally keep an eye on your alcohol. Drinking alcohol over the recommended levels (14 units a week for women and 21 units a week for men) can seriously affect fertility, so if you are drinking over this level, you need to cut back. Apart from its effect on fertility, alcohol, even in moderate amounts, can be harmful to the unborn baby especially in the early weeks of pregnancy. It is best if you reduce or even cut out alcohol while you are trying to become pregnant.
Remember, if you are thinking about becoming pregnant, start by having a look at what you are eating at the moment and work towards a healthy weight and a healthy balanced diet. Get some advice from a qualified dietitian if you are unsure about what you need to do. The food choices you make now can help both you and your baby to be at your very best.