Important nutrients for pregnancy
A healthy and varied diet based on starchy foods (including wholegrain varieties), with some lean meat, fish, eggs and other sources of protein and low fat dairy products with plenty of fruit and vegetables is important for good health throughout life. When you want to become pregnant, it is even more important that you follow a healthy, balanced diet to get all the nutrients you need. For more information on a healthy varied diet see here.
Dietary advice for women who are trying for a baby is mostly the same as for other adults. But there are some top tips that women who want to become pregnant should follow:
Take a folic acid supplement
This vitamin is particularly important before you become pregnant and also during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Extra folic acid during this time (for most women a supplement of 400 micrograms per day of folic acid is recommended) reduces the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (problems affecting the baby’s spine and neural tubes, such as spina bifida).
If there’s a family history of neural tube defects, or you’re taking anti-epileptic medication or you’re diabetic, speak to your GP as you may need a higher dose.
It is also a good idea to eat foods that are high in folate (the natural form of folic acid) found in foods like green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, peas, oranges and berries.
Think about vitamin D
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium from your diet which is important for healthy bones for you and your baby.
We get most of our vitamin D from the action of sunlight on the skin. So from about late March to the end of September, most of us should be able to get all the vitamin D we need from sunlight on our skin when we are outdoors. If you are out in the sun, take care to cover up or protect your skin with sunscreen before you turn red or get burnt. Between October and early March though we don't get sufficient vitamin D from sunlight.
Low blood levels of vitamin D are quite common in UK women, especially in the winter and early spring. Women with darker skin and women who spend very little time exposed to sunlight, for example because they cover their skin for cultural reasons or spend long periods indoors, are most at risk of low vitamin D status.
There are only a few dietary sources of vitamin D. Oily fish is a good source, and eating oily fish once a week (such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and herring) can make a useful contribution to vitamin D intakes. Vitamin D is also found in eggs and is added to some breakfast cereals and fat spreads.
Because vitamin D is found only in a small number of foods, everyone, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D, particularly in the winter months.If you are trying for a baby this may be a good time to consider taking a vitamin D supplement to ensure your stores are topped up for your pregnancy.
Some women can obtain free supplements via the government’s Healthy Start scheme.
Women trying for a baby should also be aware that having large amounts of vitamin A can harm your unborn baby, so do not take supplements that contain vitamin A. You can ask your GP or pharmacist about supplements.
Eat fish but choose the species carefully
As well as being an excellent source of vitamin D, oily fish is rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and this type of fat is required for the development of your baby’s brain and eyes. So do Try to eat at least one portion of oily fish per week. However because contaminants that may be present in some oily fish can be harmful if consumed in large amounts, limit yourself to not more than two portions of oily fish a week (one portion is 140g, cooked weight).
If you are trying for a baby or are pregnant, you should however also avoid eating shark, swordfish and marlin and you should not eat more than four medium-sized cans of tuna or two fresh tuna steaks a week. This is because these fish can contain more mercury than other kinds of fish, and this may harm your baby’s nervous system.
Look at your iron intake
It's common for women to develop iron deficiency during pregnancy. This is because your body needs extra iron to ensure your baby has a sufficient blood supply and receives necessary oxygen and nutrients.
Try to build up your iron stores when you’re trying to become pregnant by eating a balanced diet including iron-rich foods.
Good sources of iron are red meat, poultry and fish. Some plant food such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and wholegrains also contain iron, but it is not as well absorbed into your body as the iron you eat from animal sources. However, vitamin C helps absorb the iron from plant sources. Try to include foods or drinks containing vitamin C (like a small glass of orange juice, tomatoes and peppers) with your meals to increase your iron uptake.