Nutrition whilst planning for pregnancy
An informative blog post by our resident nutritionist – Claire Glazzard
Thinking about becoming pregnant?
Eating well and a healthy, active lifestyle is of course important at any time, but is especially important if you are planning a pregnancy or are pregnant. Women who are healthy at the time of conception are more likely to have a successful pregnancy and a healthy child. As long as there are no underlying medical issues.
There is no need to go on a special diet, eating a variety of different foods every day to get the right balance of nutrients that you and your baby need, is what is important.
Can nutrition impact on fertility?
It is so important to remember that your fertility can be affected by a number of things, including genetics, physiological factors, the environment and lifestyle. There is no ‘superfood’ or ‘fertility boosting’ nutrient and even if you live a healthy lifestyle, in reality it doesn’t always work out that way.
Body weight seems to be associated with fertility, so if a woman who is very overweight (BMI over 30 kg/m2) or underweight (BMI below 19 kg/m2) is having problems conceiving, achieving a healthy bodyweight may increase her chances of conceiving.
Look after your body, eat healthy, maintain a healthy weight, stay active, get good sleep, keep your stress levels in check, stop smoking and drinking alcohol to give yourself the best chance – all and any of this could certainly help, although it still might not happen easily.
In this together: advice for men
Excessive alcohol intake may affect sperm quality and men are advised not to drink more than the Department of Health’s recommendation of 14 units per week.
Men who smoke are more likely to have reduced semen quality and stopping smoking may also reduce the impact of passive smoking for their partner. Stopping smoking can increase the chances of conceiving and will improve general health.
Obese men (BMI over 30 kg/m2) may also have reduced fertility and should aim for a healthy body weight to improve their chances of conception.
It is also important for men to eat a healthy, varied diet. Specific nutrients which are found in a healthy, varied diet are known to be important for male fertility.
What do you mean by healthy eating?
It is important to point out that there is no one-size-fits all approach to nutrition or health. Food is all about individuality. Additionally, healthy eating messages are made on a population basis, not for individuals. So the key with improving your diet or your health, is to listen to the overall messages and make them work for you.
In practice this means:
- base meals on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, choosing wholegrain (for extra fibre) where possible
- eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (5 a day)
- 2-3 portions of protein rich foods. Eggs, lentils, beans, pulses, nuts. 2x fish portions a week (one oily fish). Opt for smaller amounts of quality meat
- moderate amounts of dairy products (such as milk, yogurt or cheese) or dairy alternatives
- foods and drinks high in fat and sugar should only be consumed in limited amounts
- drink 2 litres (or 6-8 glasses) of fluid (water, lower fat milks and lower sugar or sugar-free drinks, including tea and coffee, all count). I will talk more about caffeine in my next blog.
What about Supplements?
During preconception, women are advised to take a folic acid supplement, 400 mircograms (µg), every day until the 12th week of pregnancy.
Folic acid can help to prevent or reduce the risk of the baby being born with a neural tube defect, including spina bifida.
If you did not take folic acid before you conceived, you should start taking it as soon as you find out you are pregnant.
Foods rich in folate (the natural form of folic acid), such as green leafy vegetables and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, margarines should be eaten, however it is difficult to get the required amount of folate recommended for a healthy pregnancy from food alone. Therefore it is important to take a folic acid supplement.
Can I drink alcohol?
Women who are trying to become pregnant are also advised to stop drinking alcohol altogether to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
Drinking in early pregnancy can increase your risk of miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight. The more you drink, the greater the risk.
Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can. Alcohol passes through to the placenta and to your baby. A baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop and doesn’t mature until the later stages of pregnancy.
If you find out you are pregnant, and have drunk unknowingly in early pregnancy, do not worry unnecessarily, as the risks of your baby being affected are likely to be low. Once you find out you are pregnant you should avoid further drinking.
There is lots of support available. You can always speak to your midwife, GP or pharmacist.
Stop smoking advice
It is never too late to quit smoking. Whether you are planning a pregnancy, just found out you are expecting or already pregnant, the sooner you quit, the better.
Couples who are trying for a baby are also advised to stop smoking, as smoking (including passive smoking) may reduce the chances of conceiving and can harm the baby.
You already know that smoking is harmful to health. Nicotine is an addictive substance and it is hard to quit.
Everything you breathe in passes through to your baby (including secondhand smoke). Each cigarette contains more than 4,000 chemicals. When you smoke, carbon monoxide and other harmful toxins travel from your lungs, into your bloodstream, through your placenta and into your baby’s body. When this happens, your baby struggles for oxygen. When your baby can’t get enough oxygen, this affects their development.
There is lots of help available, so you do not have to do this alone. Your local stop smoking service offers free, one-to-one advice, support and encouragement to help you stop smoking. You can also talk to your GP or midwife – they can talk you through the best treatments available.
What about exercise?
Being active is part of a healthy lifestyle. It can help to maintain a healthy body weight, support mental wellbeing and keep stress levels in check.
Make activities such as walking, cycling, swimming, aerobics gardening part of everyday life and build activity into daily life – for example, by taking the stairs instead of the lift or taking a walk at lunchtime
Read Abi Okell’s blog on Physiotherapy and Exercise in the Ante Natal Period to find out more
- British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). (2016). Pregnancy and Preconception. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/life.html
- Department of Health (2016). UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/545937/UK_CMOs__report.pdf
- Gordon, J. (2019). Pregnancy and Diet: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association. Available at: bda.uk.com/foodfacts
- National Health Service (NHS). (2020) Start4Life. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/start4life
• National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2010) Public Health Guideline (PH27) Weight management before, during and after pregnancy. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph27
• Stephenson, J. et al (2018) Before the beginning: nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health. Lancet; 391(10132): 1830–1841.