Thinking of starting a family and want to get on top of your health? Dietitian Brooke Delfino shares the ABCs of pre-pregnancy nutrition.
What to eat when you’re trying to conceive and while you’re pregnant can be confusing, especially when you factor in hormonal fluctuations, cravings and morning sickness. If you or someone you know is thinking about getting pregnant, the simplest thing you can do to increase your chance of success is to improve your diet and lifestyle. Here’s what you need to know, no matter where you are on your journey towards parenthood.
A healthy foundation
“Preconception health is arguably one of the best forms of preventative health,” says Stefanie Valakas, an accredited practising dietitian specialising in fertility, and founder of The Dietologist. “The first 1000 days of life, which actually starts about three to six months before conception, up until a child’s second birthday, is a critical window of time when nutrition can change the way your baby’s genes are going to be expressed, called ‘epigenetics,” she explains.
The ideal time
It’s never too soon to think about diet and lifestyle from a preconception perspective but, for an otherwise healthy woman with no known medical issues, at least three months before trying to conceive is the ideal window of opportunity.
“This is the time that eggs are going through their maturation phase before ovulation,” explains Valakas. And men should also pay attention to their habits during this time. “Sperm has a similar 64 to 72-day runway for being created, so male preconception health is just as important,” adds Valakas.
For women with an underlying medical issue that can affect their ability to conceive, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis and thyroid dysfunction, or who need to gain or lose weight, Valakas suggests a slightly longer preparation time. “Ideally, six to 12 months allows women enough time to help manage these conditions before actively trying,” she advises.
What to do 12 months out of getting pregnant
The earlier you start making healthy changes to the way you eat and live, the better. The first thing to do is visit your GP for a check-up. This is especially important if you have a health condition that may affect your ability to conceive. It’s also a good idea to have a recent pap smear and breast check. And if you smoke, give it up.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also important for conception. “Regardless of BMI, too much or too little body fat can cause your body to stop ovulating, which is critical when it comes to trying to conceive,” says Valakas. Even a small change in body weight can improve your fertility and pregnancy health.
Your pre-baby checklist
- Visit your GP for a check-up
- Cut back on eating highly processed foods such as biscuits, chips and fried takeaway, and replace with whole or minimally processed foods
- Replace sugary drinks with water.
What to do six months out from conception
Now is the time to really focus on what you’re eating — for both your and bub’s health. Valakas advises upping your intake of colourful vegetables that are rich in antioxidants. “The more antioxidants, the better the chance of protecting the egg, which is the largest single cell in the female body and very susceptible to DNA damage,” she explains. “Omega-3 fats found in salmon, trout and sardines have also been shown to support egg quality, specifically age-related egg quality,” adds Valakas. A 2018 study found that couples who ate seafood eight times per menstrual cycle (or twice a week on average) experienced a shorter time to conception than couples who did not.
Extra-virgin olive oil is another good ingredient to stock up on. “Extra-virgin olive oil provides a boost of healthy fats that will support hormone health, but also help with antioxidant absorption, and is antioxidant-rich itself,” says Valakas.
Your pre-baby checklist
- Aim for five serves of vegetables a day
- Eat oil-rich fish (salmon, trout, sardines) at least twice a week
- Eat eggs three to four times a week
- Use extra-virgin olive oil daily.
What to do one to three months out from pregnancy
Taking the recommended dose of folic acid (at least 400mcg a day) and iodine (150mcg a day) at least one month before conception will reduce the risk of your baby developing certain serious birth defects. “Supplementation is absolutely necessary if you’re trying to conceive, irrespective of how perfect your diet and bloodwork is,” stresses Valakas. “Taking supplements one month before trying to conceive is the minimum, whereas three months prior is ideal.”
Three months beforehand couples should also limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day, which is equivalent to one or two cafe-style espresso shots per day, or four cups of black or green tea a day. Couples often think of limiting their coffee intake, but men especially need to keep an eye on how many energy drinks and pre-workout supplements they consume, as these can contain very high amounts of caffeine.
Your pre-baby checklist
- Start taking a preconception supplement
- Cut back on alcohol
- Reduce your caffeine intake
What to do once baby is on board
1 Eat your greens
Include plenty of dark, leafy green vegies such as broccoli, spinach and bok choy in your diet because they’re rich in iron and folate — two nutrients vital for supporting a healthy pregnancy. Try blending some raw spinach leaves into your morning smoothie.
2 Be smart about carbs
Swap highly processed carbs like white bread, muffins and biscuits for high-fibre, wholegrain carbs, such as oats, soy and linseed bread and brown rice.
3 Drink plenty of fluids
In combination with a diet rich in fibre, drinking plenty of water can help reduce constipation.
4 Move daily
Aim for 45—90 minutes of moderate-impact exercise a day. This could be brisk walking, swimming or taking a pre-natal Pilates class.
5 Snack on nuts
Nuts are rich in a range of nutrients and ideal for snacking on during pregnancy. Walnuts offer omega-3 fats for your unborn baby’s brain development, while hazelnuts and pistachios are rich in folate.
When to seek help
As a general rule, if you’re under 35 years of age and have been trying for 12 months or more to get pregnant, it’s time to seek the advice of a fertility specialist. For women over 35, that timeframe reduces to six months, since age is one of the biggest predictors of pregnancy success.