Pre-pregnancy diet: How to fuel your body for a baby
A healthy diet before pregnancy has huge benefits not only for the mum-to-be, but the baby too.
Eating a balanced diet is important at any time of life, but it is especially important when planning a pregnancy.
University College London and University of Queensland research found parents’ diets and lifestyles could have significant impacts on the growth and health of children – before they are conceived.
“The preconception period is a critical time when parental health – including weight, metabolism and diet – can influence the risk of future chronic disease in children,” UCL Institute for Women’s Health Professor Judith Stephenson says.
Mercy Health consultant obstetrician Dr Charlotte Elder agrees.
“A growing baby takes nutrients from the mother so it’s important in the pre-pregnancy period to eat a broad and varied diet,” Dr Elder, chairwoman of the Victorian Regional Committee for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says.
So, what foods are important in a healthy pre-pregnancy diet – and what foods need to be avoided?
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What to eat pre-pregnancy
Lean red meat, poultry and tofu
These foods are all rich in iron and a growing baby takes iron from its mother.
“Having adequate iron stores before pregnancy ensures a woman is left with enough iron stores for herself,” Dr Elder says.
Aim for 3½ serves of lean red meat, poultry or tofu a day.
Eggs, fish and milk
These foods are a good source of vitamin B12, which helps make DNA.
If you are vegan and planning a pregnancy, you will probably need a B12 supplement, Dr Elder says.
Sushi and seafood
An iodine supplement of 150mcg per day is recommended a few months pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy.
Iodine can also be found in seafood, seaweed, eggs and meat and it’s important for the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system.
Wholegrains and cereals
Aim for about eight serves of wholegrains and cereals each day, such as bread, rice, pasta, noodles, buckwheat, polenta, quinoa, porridge or muesli.
They contain fibre that can help avoid or ease constipation.
“Women can get constipated in early pregnancy and if you’re constipated before that, it can make nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy worse,” Dr Elder says.
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Fruits and vegetables
Both are also a good source of fibre and vitamins.
A serve is half a cup of cooked vegetables, a cup of green leafy or salad vegetables or half a medium potato.
A single fruit serve is a medium-sized apple, banana or orange, two apricots or plums, or a cup of diced or canned fruit.
“Drinking water and gentle exercise, like walking, also help,” Dr Elder says.
Reduced-fat milk, hard cheese and yoghurt
Pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy, women should aim to have 2½ serves a day of reduced-fat milk, hard cheese or yoghurt to boost calcium that builds strong bones.
Asparagus, broccoli, spinach, Vegemite
These contain folate and so do cabbage, cauliflower, chickpeas, peas and salmon.
At least three months before pregnancy, women need a 0.5mg folic acid supplement to reduce the risk of neural tube defects and spina bifida.
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What to avoid or reduce pre-pregnancy
“It’s a good idea for men to stop drinking three months before conception and for women to stop around the time of conception as alcohol reduces fertility,” Dr Elder says.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends women planning pregnancy avoid alcohol.
University of Adelaide research found women who eat high-fat, high-sugar fast food four or more times a week can take nearly a month longer to become pregnant than women who never or rarely eat junk food.
“Junk food is always junk and avoiding excessive amounts of sugar is good advice for anyone,” Dr Elder says.
Soft cheeses, raw seafood, soft-serve ice cream
Foods such as ricotta, oysters, sushi, soft-serve ice cream, pate, raw eggs and cold processed or undercooked meats can cause infections, such as listeria.
This infection can be particularly risky during pregnancy.
Written by Sarah Marinos.