Already pregnant? Why not check out our blog Nutrition and a healthy diet during pregnancy.
What is the preconception period?
The preconception period is the 3-12 months prior to falling pregnant. This is the perfect time to start enhancing your diet, as your egg cells are starting to develop and mature before you ovulate (which can take up to 3 months). Additionally, a full sperm cycle takes approximately 64 days, so men you’re not off the hook on this one! Basically, what you eat now will affect both eggs and sperm production in roughly 3 months’ time, which in turn may affect your future baby.
How can the foods I eat when trying to get pregnant affect my baby?
Have you ever heard of the term epigenetics? Epigenetics is the scientific term that describes how nutrition and other environmental factors can influence the way your genes work, and ultimately the health and wellbeing of your future baby. Epigenetic changes, un-like genetic changes, do not change your genetic make-up, instead they alter the way your body sees and responds to these gene sequences. Research suggests that we have the potential to modify the risk of lifestyle diseases, for both ourselves and our offspring, through this exact mechanism. Nutrient-poor diets during preconception (in both men and women) can play a part in the epigenetics of your future baby.
Inadequate nutrition and nutrient deficiencies in both men and women prior to conception can also increase the risk of having low or high birthweight babies. Nutrient deficiencies can also affect the development of the placenta, blood supply to the growing foetus, brain and spinal cord development and potentially increase the chance of miscarriage and prematurity. These situations are associated with an increased risk of disease later in your baby’s life. These are amongst the many reasons why preconception nutrition is important, so it’s best to load up on these nutrients below before conceiving!
Getting started – What nutrients you need when trying to conceive
Let’s move onto the practical part of this blog! There are many nutrients that play an important role in preconception, so we’ll take you through a few of the key nutrients here.
Folate is an essential nutrient for the development of the neural tube (brain and spinal cord) and is well known for its role in preventing neural tube defects. This structure often begins forming before women find out they’re even pregnant!
- Folate can be found in dark leafy green vegetables, lentils and legumes, avocados, oranges and strawberries.
- Folic acid is also found in many of our breads and cereals on supermarket shelves in Australia (check the label before you buy), as well as prenatal supplements, such as a2 Nutrition for mothersTM.
Low levels of iodine leading into pregnancy can affect the growth and development of your baby’s tissues and result in developmental abnormalities. Iodine is also vital for a healthy thyroid and thyroid hormone production.
- Iodine is found in seafood e.g. oysters, seaweed and tinned salmon, as well as bread made with iodised salt. You can also use iodised salt in your cooking.
Emerging research from animal studies suggests that optimal levels of zinc can assist in making a healthy egg! Zinc is also well known for its role in rapid cell division and growth in your baby.
- Zinc can be found in oysters, beef, chicken, eggs and fish, as well as milk, cheese, lentils and legumes.
Inadequate levels of B12 can affect egg development and ovulation. This B-vitamin is also crucial for the brain and nervous system function.
- Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, as well as foods that are fortified with B12, such as some plant-based milks.
- If you’re vegan or vegetarian, check with your healthcare professional to make sure you’re getting enough.
Iron is one of the most imperative nutrients for women trying to conceive, as well as during pregnancy. Research suggests that iron deficiency can make it difficult to conceive, and can result in failure to ovulate. Iron requirements almost double during pregnancy (18mg to 27mg) to produce more blood for your growing baby.
- Iron can be found in red meat and poultry, as well as smaller amounts in fish, green leafy vegetables, and legumes such as lentils and beans.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Research suggests that omega-3’s are key in optimising egg quality and are beneficial for female fertility due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
- The best forms of omega-3’s are found in oily fish that dwell in cold water, such as salmon, trout, fresh tuna, mackerel and sardines.
- Omega 3’s can also be found in chia seeds, linseeds (or flaxseeds), hemp seeds and walnuts.
Whilst there is a lot to consider when it comes to preconception nutrition, a well-balanced diet is key to laying a great foundation for pregnancy!
What about prenatal supplements?
While we advocate for food first, a prenatal supplement alongside a well-balanced diet will help you cover all your bases and assist you in getting enough of those key nutrients required to develop a healthy baby. It is important to choose the right prenatal supplement for you! There are some nutrient targets which are difficult to meet from diet alone. For this reason, folic acid and iodine supplements are routinely recommended during the preconception period. For the right prenatal supplement for your needs, please consult your treating healthcare professional.
Being pregnant is an exciting chapter, and preconception nutrition is a necessary component of this journey. Working with a prenatal dietitian and your healthcare professional will help ensure you reach your nutrition targets each day. A prenatal dietitian will personalise recommendations and supplement advice to your lifestyle and current intake. For more information and to find the right prenatal dietitian for you, visit Dietitians Australia.
Article written by Accredited Practising Dietitian, Kaylee Slater