What you eat, and how much you eat, can affect your ability to conceive a child - both positively and negatively. Here are some of the most important food-related ways you can boost your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby.
Improve your diet three months to a year before you conceive. For both men and women, foods and fertility are linked. If you both stick to a balanced diet, you can boost your chances of conceiving and of having a healthy baby. Read on for specific advice for you. Your husband can also find out more about nutrition tips for a healthy dad-to-be.
Reach your ideal body weight. You may choose to shed some weight (or gain a little if you're underweight) while you're attempting to get pregnant. It's a good idea to be as close as possible to your recommended weight when trying for a baby as being overweight or underweight can reduce your chances of conceiving. But consult your family doctor before you embark on any diet or exercise plan.
If you are overweight, a sensible eating plan could include lower fat and higher fibre foods, but don't forget to exercise. You are more likely to get pregnant if you join a group which includes exercise and advice on your diet than seeking advice on diet alone. Extreme weight loss from crash dieting can deplete your body's nutritional stores, which isn't a good way to start a pregnancy. (Read more about how your weight affects your fertility.)
Follow a healthy eating plan. Healthy eating means eating a balanced diet and avoiding foods high in fat and sugar, such as cakes and biscuits. The UK Food Standards Agency recommends eating a variety of foods while trying to conceive, including:
• Fruit and vegetables - these can be fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or a glass of juice. Aim for at least five portions a day.
• Carbohydrate foods such as rice, noodles (mee, meehoon, kueh teow, pan mee), breads, thosai, idli, chapatti, pasta, potatoes, keladi and keledek.
• Protein such as lean meat and chicken, fish, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils). Vegetarian protein sources include tofu, fu chok, beans, legumes, seeds and vegetarian soya protein (mock meat).
• Fish, at least twice a week, including some oily fish - but don't have more than two portions of oily fish a week. This includes fresh tuna (not canned tuna, which does not count as oily fish), mackerel, sardines and trout, cod and seabass.
• Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, which contain calcium.
• Iron rich foods, such as red meat, pulses, dried fruit, bread, green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals, to build up your resources of iron in preparation for pregnancy.
It helps your body to absorb iron if you have some food or drink containing vitamin C, such as fruit or vegetables, or a glass of fruit juice with any iron-rich meals. Avoid drinking caffeine drinks (coffee, tea, Colas) after having an iron rich food source. Wait at least two hours after your meal to have your caffeine-containing beverage; this will allow your body to absorb the iron first.
Take a vitamin supplement. While you can meet almost all your nutritional needs through a balanced diet, some experts believe that even the healthiest eaters could do with some extra help. "My doctor suggested I take a supplement while trying to conceive and I reckoned it couldn't do any harm," says Margaret. "I don't always have time to plan meals and I sometimes eat on the run. This way, I'm making sure I get everything my body needs."
Remember that a supplement is a safeguard, not a substitute for a sound diet. And since over-the-counter supplements may contain large doses of vitamins and minerals that could be harmful to a developing baby, it's sensible to switch to a pill formulated for pregnant women even before you conceive. Or choose a supplement that contains about 100 per cent of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) so that it does not contain mega doses of vitamins or minerals. Talk with your doctor about the right antenatal supplement for you.
Get lots of folic acid. Everyone could do with more folic acid, not just women - this B vitamin has been linked to a lower incidence of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and diabetes. It also reduces a baby's risk of neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida (a serious congenital condition, which occurs when the tube around the central nervous system fails to close completely).
Women who are trying to conceive (or who might become pregnant) should take a supplement of 0.4 milligrams (mg) daily - also written as 400 micrograms (mcg). You should take this from the time you stop using contraception until the 12th week of pregnancy. Make sure that the supplement you use does not contain vitamin A or fish liver oil (see below, "What else to avoid").
It is recommended that any woman who has had a child with a neural tube defect should take a much higher dose - 5 milligrams (mg) a day. If you or your husband or an immediate relative has a neural tube defect you should also take 5 milligrams (mg) of folic acid a day. This higher dose is also recommended if you are taking anti-epileptic drugs, have coeliac disease (gluten intolerance) or sickle cell disease.
In addition, it's wise to eat folate-rich foods such as dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach or kale), citrus fruits, nuts, whole grains, brown rice, fortified breads and cereals.
Cut back now on alcohol. If your drinking habits leave something to be desired, you'll have to make some adjustments. Here's some solid advice: cut out or only occasionally drink alcohol. The current advice is to drink no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice per week. A unit is half a pint of standard strength beer, lager or cider, or a pub measure of spirit. A glass of wine is about two units. The main risk here is to a developing fetus, which can be harmed by heavy or binge drinking. (It’s recommended that pregnant women totally cut out alcoholic drinks.)
If you have stopped using contraception, there is a chance that you could already be pregnant - it's better to be safe than sorry and avoid worrying later about how much you drank early in pregnancy.
Think ahead about caffeine . There is no consistent evidence to link caffeinated beverages (tea, coffee and colas) to fertility problems. However, the UK Food Standard Agency advises that pregnant women should limit their intake of caffeine - having more than 200 mg of caffeine per day has been linked to miscarriage and low birth weight. As part of your preparation for pregnancy you could start to wean yourself from caffeine in chocolate, cocoa, fizzy drinks and coffee so that you are used to a lower intake before you become pregnant.
To check how much you are consuming now - 200 mg of caffeine is roughly equivalent to:
• 2 mugs of instant coffee (100mg each)
• 2 cups of brewed coffee (100mg each)
• 4 cups of tea (50mg each)
• 5 cans of cola (up to 40mg each)
• 4 (50g) bars of plain chocolate (up to 50mg each). Caffeine in milk chocolate is about half that of plain chocolate
What else to avoid?
The UK Food Standards Agency recommends that women who are trying to conceive should also avoid the following:
• Too much vitamin A. This means you should avoid eating liver and liver products such as pâté and avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A or fish liver oil. You need some vitamin A, but if you have too much during pregnancy, this could harm your baby.
• Fish containing mercury, such as, shark, swordfish and marlin. Also, don't eat more than two tuna steaks a week (weighing about 140g cooked or 170g raw) or four medium-size cans of tuna a week (with a drained weight of about 140g per can). High levels of mercury can harm an unborn baby's developing nervous system.
Your doctor can give you more information on the dos and don'ts when trying to conceive - it's a good opportunity to make sure you are in tip top physical condition for pregnancy too.
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