How can I get the right nutrients to prepare for my pregnancy?
If you’re planning to get pregnant soon, you should take particular care to follow a healthy lifestyle. An important part of this involves paying attention to your nutritional needs and following a varied and balanced diet, whilst avoiding alcohol, nicotine and keeping a normal weight. This will not only maximize your chances of seeing that little positive line, it will make sure your baby gets the best possible start in life.
A healthy, varied and balanced diet
The official advice regarding diet is to follow general healthy eating rules, but with a few tweaks. Besides providing the right nutrients, this will help you keep to a healthy weight, which in turn will improve your chances of conceiving.
A balanced diet includes at least five daily portions of fruit and vegetables; three daily portions of starchy foods such as bread, pasta, cereals or rice – preferably whole grain versions; two to three daily portions of protein such as lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs and pulses; and three daily portions of dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt or cheese - best low-fat products.
Try to eat two portions of fish a week, making one an oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines or mackerel. Oily fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA. The recommended daily intake for omega-3 fatty acids for adults is 250mg of DHA and EPA, whilst pregnant and nursing women are recommended to take an additional amount of 200mg of DHA daily (which could be obtained also e.g. via a pregnancy supplement). Maternal intake of omega-3 DHA contributes to the normal development of the brain and the eyes of the foetus and the breastfed infant.
However, don’t exceed two portions of fish because they may contain pollutants, which can build up in the body. And stay away from shark, swordfish and marlin, which may contain mercury.
It’s also a good idea to build up your iron resources, so eat plenty of foods containing iron including red meat, pulses, dried fruit, bread, green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals.
Do I need a supplement?
In general, it is always important to follow a healthy lifestyle as well as a varied and balanced diet, in order to provide the nutrients your body needs. When you become pregnant, requirements for some nutrients are increased. One of the most important nutrients for pre-conception and early pregnancy is folate, and it is recommended to complement your diet with a daily 400µg supplement of folic acid/folate.* Although you can get folate (the natural form of folic acid) from food, it’s highly recommended that you take a daily supplement of 400µg folic acid. This can be important for the development of your baby* and is strongly supported by scientific research.
Research also suggests that it’s common for pregnant women in northern countries to have low levels of vitamin D, especially in winter. Although Vitamin D is present in some foods, such as eggs, meat, oily fish and dairy products, most of our Vitamin D is actually produced in our skin when it is exposed to sunlight in the summer. Therefore, you should ensure that during pre-conception and pregnancy you also have a sufficient supply of vitamin D.
You may also want to consider taking a specially tailored pre-natal supplement with folic acid/folate and other nutrients such as Vitamin D, as complement to a varied and balanced diet, to support you in the coming months.
What to avoid
Too-high doses of vitamin A (retinol) could harm an unborn baby, so avoid liver or liver products, such as pâté and supplements containing fish liver oil. You will probably receive lots of gorgeous baby clothes as gifts so don’t go too overboard on the newborn sizes, cute as they may be, especially as babies can grow fast. Go for cotton clothes that are easy to put on and not too fiddly to fasten.
If you smoke, get help to quit now as smoking during pregnancy has been linked to a range of problems, from miscarriage to low birth weight. You should also avoid alcohol as it can have serious negative effects on the physical and mental development of an unborn baby. Alcohol passes through the bloodstream from the mother to the unborn baby, and because the baby’s liver function isn’t yet fully developed, the alcohol stays for much longer in their body.
*Taking a folic acid supplement increases maternal folate level. A low level of folate in the pregnant mother is one of the risk factors in the development of neural tube defects in the developing foetus. Therefore, it is recommended that women should take a 400µg supplement of folic acid daily over a period of at least one month before and up to three months after conception. Low maternal folate status as an important risk factor for neural tube defects has been scientifically proven. Other factors, such as hereditary factors, can also increase the risk of neural tube defect.