Planning for pregnancy or ‘preconception care’ refers to the period where couples will actively engage in optimising their health before conceiving. Ideally, couples will start at least 3-4 months before conception as sperm and ova (a female’s eggs) take around 100 days to form and mature.
Optimising our preconception nutrition not only increases our chances of conceiving but is also important for supporting a healthy pregnancy and the development of a healthy baby. Ensuring we are meeting all our nutrient requirements helps prevent unfavourable outcomes for both the mother and child including low fetal birth weight and pregnancy complications (e.g., pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes). Lastly, many of our nutrient requirements increase during pregnancy so this is an optimal time to ensure all our nutrient levels are topped up!
Firstly, we want to focus on consuming a mostly whole-food, antioxidant-rich diet. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage and are not only beneficial for our overall health but help improve the quality of our sperm and eggs. Foods that are rich in antioxidants include berries, dark leafy greens, tomatoes, onion, avocado, nuts, and seeds. When in doubt, focus on eating the ‘rainbow’ and incorporating a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables daily as these provide an array of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Specific nutrients to focus on during the preconception phase include the following:
Healthy fats are incredibly supportive of our hormones and fertility. For the baby, essential fatty acids act as the building blocks for their brain and nervous system. Good sources of healthy fats include oily fish, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds. We also recommend opting for low mercury fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon and avoiding high mercury fish including swordfish, barramundi, and shark.
Folate is crucial for supporting the growth of the baby’s nervous system and preventing neural tube defects (any defect in the baby’s brain or spinal cord). Folic acid supplementation effectively reduces the risk of developing spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Hence, we recommend supplementing with folic acid during the preconception phase. Good sources of folate include dark leafy vegetables, legumes, avocado and asparagus.
Iron requirements significantly increase during pregnancy due to a rise in maternal blood volume and iron transportation. As iron deficiency is incredibly common women should consume more iron-rich foods (or supplement if required) in their diet. Good sources of iron include red meat, poultry, seafood, lentils, and spinach.
Iodine is an essential mineral for a healthy thyroid and nervous system. Iodine is required for maternal thyroid production and fetal brain development. Good sources of iodine include seafood, seaweed, fortified food products such as salt and bread.
Probiotic-rich foods contain beneficial microbes or ‘good bugs’ that improve the composition of our gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome helps us to digest food efficiently, absorb nutrients and regulate our sex hormone levels. Probiotic foods include kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha, tempeh, miso, and pickles.
Calcium supports the development of strong bones and teeth for the baby. If the mother’s calcium intake is insufficient, the baby will draw from the mother’s stores (i.e. taken from her bones) to build their skeleton. Good sources of calcium include dairy and dairy alternatives, fish, tofu, chia seeds, almonds, and dark leafy greens.
Inadequate zinc can result in irregular menstrual cycles and abnormal egg development. Zinc is especially important for women who have recently come off or are on the oral contraceptive pill as the pill depletes zinc from the body. Good sources of zinc include oysters, red meat, milk, cashews, and pepitas.
Choline supports the brain development, gene expression and vascular function of the baby. Scientific literature has also found that it helps prevent, along with folate, neural tube defects. Good sources of choline include eggs, red meat, legumes, and broccoli.
Consuming a well-balanced, whole food diet is a great way to meet your dietary nutrient requirements. However, for women looking to conceive in the next 3-6 months, it’s recommended to supplement with a prenatal. A prenatal supplement acts as an ‘dietary insurance’ and ensures that you are meeting all your essential nutrient requirements including folate and iodine.
To learn more about finding the right prenatal supplement for you or the right preconception diet for you, we recommend speaking to a qualified health care practitioner such as a nutritionist or naturopath.