Pregnancy is as beautiful a phase for a woman as it is challenging. The responsibility of nurturing a life within oneself is in itself rather overwhelming. But it is also just as important to ensure that one's own health is optimum in order to be able to conceive and then have a healthy and stress-free pregnancy.
If you plan to get pregnant within the next few months—or even year—it's important to get your diet on the healthy track now to prepare your body for pregnancy later.
"There are easy changes that can be made to an everyday diet for those who are trying to conceive. Not only can some foods increase your fertility but they can also prepare your body for a baby, and nourishing it for the nine months," says Delhi-based nutritionist and wellness coach, Avni Kaul, Founder, NutriActivania.
A balanced diet, composed of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and dairy products is able to provide the daily nutritional requirements for the body performing optimally. But if you are serious about having a healthy pregnancy, your diet should begin reflecting healthy choices at least four months to a year before you conceive or want to conceive.
Start Planning Your Pre-Pregnancy Diet
Evidence shows that healthy nutrition and fertility is linked in both men and women. If you're overweight, losing weight can increase your fertility. But drastically cutting calories or exercising too much will interfere with your ability to get pregnant and won't help your body support another life.
Pre-pregnancy nutrition is a vital part of preparing for pregnancy. Factors such as your weight compared with your height and what you eat can play an important role in your health during pregnancy and the health of your developing foetus.
"Overall, now is a great time to analyse your diet as a whole," says Chandigarh-based gynaecologist Dr Renu Chakravarty, adding, "It is exactly how the soil is prepared before a sapling or seed is planted. You need to ensure that the soil has all the right nutrients. It is exactly the case with the body.” Her views are reiterated by Avni Kaul, who says,
If you’re eating a lot of junk food, refined grains, and sweets, know that those foods have no nutritional benefit and might be hurting your body as they can lead to spikes in blood sugar and trans fats increase inflammation in the body. This is not an ideal situation because not only will it lead to difficulties in conceiving, but gestational diabetes, blood pressure fluctuations and other complications could arise.
It is therefore important to ensure that your body is as healthy as it can be to ensure you and your baby are healthy.
A would-be mother's pre-pregnancy weight directly influences your baby's weight at birth. "Studies show that underweight women are more likely to give birth to small babies, even though they may gain the same amount in pregnancy as normal weight women. Overweight women have increased risks in pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure," points out Dr Chakravarty.
It becomes important to consult your gynaecologist or nutritionist to check if you need to lose or gain weight before becoming pregnant.
All About Pre-Pregnancy Nutrition
So what all should be included in an ideal diet before you conceive? According to Avni Kaul,
"An ideal diet is a balanced diet that has optimum combinations of all the food groups. This means grains such as wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other cereal grains should be included. A better thing to do would be to make at least half of your grains whole-grains -whole wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal,” say Avni Kaul, adding,
Other than that, fresh fruits and vegetables are a must. I always advocate what I call a ‘rainbow plate’. Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (dry beans and peas), and starchy vegetables that are fresh and seasonal and not canned or preserved.
“If you are conscious about putting on weight, choose fat free or low fat or skimmed milk as milk and milk products are very important to give you calcium. Similarly, go lean with protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine by choosing more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans," says Avni Kaul.
Speaking of fat, it is also crucial that some "good fats" are made part of your diet. "Nut oils, specifically, contain key nutrients and should be included in the diet in moderation. Others, such as animal fats, are solid at room temperature and should be avoided," advises Dr Chakravarty.
Exercise and everyday physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan.
In addition to the essential food groups, make sure you add the following essential nutrients, even in supplement form to your diet:
Consume Folic Acid Before & Through Pregnancy
Folic acid is most beneficial during the first 28 days after conception, when most neural tube defects occur. Unfortunately, many women do not realize they are pregnant before 28 days. This is why it's important to start folic acid before conception and continue through pregnancy.
All women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid each day.
Folic acid is a nutrient found in some green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and as vitamin supplements. It can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (called neural tube defects).
The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida, in which the vertebrae do not fuse together properly, causing the spinal cord to be exposed. This can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and, sometimes, intellectual disability. If you plan on getting pregnant any time in the next year you want to make sure your diet is rich in folic acid and that you’re proactive about that now.Dr Chakravarty
“You should be taking in 400-600 mg of folic acid daily before pregnancy and about 800 mg during pregnancy to ensure a healthier pregnancy and minimize risk of birth defects,” adds the doctor.
Build Iron Stores
Many women have low iron stores as a result of monthly menstruation and diet low in iron. Building iron stores helps prepare a mother's body for the needs of the fetus during pregnancy.
"Good sources of iron are meats such as beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats, poultry such as chicken, duck, and turkey (especially dark meat), fish and shellfish including sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, and oysters. For vegetarians, leafy greens of the cabbage family such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens as well as legumes such as green peas, dry beans and peas such as rajma and black-eyed peas are excellent," says nutritionist Avni Kaul.
Calcium For Healthy Bones
Preparing for pregnancy includes building healthy bones. If there is not enough calcium in the pregnancy diet, the foetus may draw calcium from the mother's bones, which can put women at risk for osteoporosis later in life. The recommended calcium intake for women is 1,000 milligrams. Three servings of milk or other dairy products each day equals about 1,000 milligrams of calcium.
High-Quality Protein For Fertility
"High quality protein in your diet are important for fertility. Make sure you're getting a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids," says Chicago-based fertility expert Dr Sangeeta Singh. "Whole eggs and egg whites are excellent sources, as are white meat poultry, and fish, especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon," suggests Avni Kaul, adding, "If you're a vegetarian, beans and legumes are healthy protein sources which are also rich in iron, another essential nutrient. If you're a vegetarian and consuming soy products, opt for whole soy products over processed as the processed versions tend to be higher in sodium and not as healthy for you overall."
Omega-3 Fatty Acid For Baby’s Brain Development
When grannies prescribed almonds and walnuts for pregnant women, they knew what they were doing. "When you get pregnant, omega-3s are great for the baby's brain development. But they're even better to include in your diet when you are trying to conceive because your body needs the healthy fats to keep hormones functioning properly—so you can get pregnant in the coming months. You can add omega-3 fatty acids in your diet each day by consuming chia seeds, flax seeds or trying to get in three fish servings each week," says Avni Kaul, adding,
Aim for 1,000 – 2,000 mg a day of omega-3 fatty acids, which is about 80 grams of fish, 2 tablespoons of walnuts, or 2 tablespoons flaxseeds or chia seeds.
Future mums (and dads) can 'spring clean' their food habits (and lifestyle) if they are thinking of having a baby.
It is important to wean yourself off caffeine (including chocolate), as research has shown that more than 200-300 milligrams of caffeine per day may reduce fertility by 27 percent. Caffeine also hinders the body’s ability to absorb iron and calcium. If you really can't do without it, "Limit it to no more than 100mg per day - about a mug and a half of instant coffee or two mugs of tea," cautions nutritionist and wellness coach, Avni Kaul.
(Aarti K Singh is an independent writer with close to two decades' experience in various media. Having worked in radio, TV and print media, she is now indulging in her passion to rediscover the world, besides juggling a PhD and raising her son.)