Kicking bad habits, sticking to a healthy diet, and taking prenatal vitamins can set the stage for a healthy pregnancy. Here are some guidelines for eating well when you’re trying to conceive.
Prior to your newfound focus on trying to conceive, you may have tried the grapefruit diet, the rice diet, the water diet, the macro diet, and the protein diets. You may have been in and out of the “Zone” so many times you’re not sure which end is up.
But that was then. This is now. And now is time to take the focus entirely off you—what looks good, smells good, and tastes good—and shift your attention to what’s optimal for your baby-to-be. The preconception phase is the perfect opportunity for you to set the “stage”—your body—for the upcoming “drama” of pregnancy. Your co-star—the soon-to-be-developing baby—performs best when conditions are ideal. In a nutshell, the better your health, the better your chances of conceiving a healthy child.
Lose the Bad Habits
- Drugs: Illicit, or “recreational” drugs, are not only illegal, but they have absolutely no place in your or your partner’s bodies. Scientific research has found that drug use affects both sperm quantity and quality and can have unwanted effects on a developing fetus.
- Cigarettes: Smoking adversely impacts your health and cuts off the oxygen supply of your developing baby. This results not only in low birth weight but further complications—some of which are unforeseen during pregnancy and childbirth. Quitting smoking entirely or greatly cutting back is imperative.
- Alcohol: While the research is in on the adverse effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, there are mixed findings on moderate drinking pre-pregnancy. While large-scale binging is always inappropriate, some physicians believe that an occasional glass of beer or wine is acceptable preconception. If this helps you to relax, or if you simply enjoy an evening toddy, proceed cautiously and consult your physician for strict guidelines on exactly where one crosses the line.
- Caffeine: The use of caffeine is controversial at best and strictly prohibited at worst. Caffeine serves as a powerful stimulant; as such, it “revs” up your heart rate and your developing child’s. But pre-conception cravings for a strong cup of joe are entirely normal, and the evidence is just not convicting enough to entirely ban the stuff. Perhaps cutting back or slowly weaning yourself is prudent advice. And remember: caffeine is found not only in that morning coffee—it’s in colas, hot cocoas, and, dare I even say it…chocolate.
- Artificial sweeteners: They will never benefit you or baby during pregnancy, so you might as well kick the artificial sweetener habit before you get pregnant. Some doctors allow their pregnant patients to use them with moderation.
What Not to Eat
Some dietary experts also advise their patients to avoid eating the following, both before conception and during pregnancy:
- Soft cheeses: Cheese made of unpasteurized milk may contain listeria, which can cause infection and lead to miscarriage. No matter how wonderful soft cheeses taste spread on that whole-grain cracker—or sprinkled in your salad—it’s best to wait until you’re no longer trying to conceive or pregnant before enjoying that pleasure. If you’re unsure of what cheeses are safe, ask your doctor.
- Liver and pates: The concentration of vitamin A, in the fat-soluble category, is considered too high and can lead to trouble. Considering its reputation, you will probably not crave liver once you’re pregnant anyway, and you really don’t need it while trying to conceive.
- Raw and rare meats and fish: If sushi is your thing, it’s best to really take it easy while you’re trying to conceive. Choose the vegetarian varieties. Order your meats prepared at least “medium” when dining out. When grilling, be careful to cook the meat a little longer if red juices are still easily flowing. You don’t need food-borne bacteria making you sick when you’re engaged in the important business of making a baby.
- Ready-to-eat salads: Wash vegetables and ready-to-eat salads with gentle veggie and fruit cleansers available from organic food cooperatives or from chains like Wild Oats, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s. Recent reports suggest that these salads might contain traces of bacteria which can be particularly harmful to developing fetuses.
- Raw eggs: Because of the increased risk of salmonella, avoid eating raw eggs and salad dressings made with raw egg. If you are dining out or are a guest at someone’s home, always inquire whether salad dressings contain raw egg, because many traditional recipes call for it.
Food You Shouldn’t Be Without
- Fresh, lean cuts of meat, pork, poultry, and fish: Your body needs protein now, and lots of it. Make sure you get at least four to six ounces a day, and don’t hesitate to eat protein at every meal. When planning the menu, think “broil, roast, and bake.”
- Nuts and legumes: Keep roasted almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds at the ready. These staples are easy to keep in your purse and in your pantry. They’re a great between-meal snack, as their high fat content will help you stave off cravings for worse alternatives and keep you satisfied until your next large meal.
- Whole grains: In this category, Frosted Flakes don’t cut it! You need minimally processed varieties of cereals and breads, particularly those that are low in sugar and high in dietary fiber. Choose whole wheat over white breads, honey over sugar, and wild rice over white, “instant” varieties.
- Fruits and vegetables: You need at least five to eight servings a day—two to three of fruit and three to five of fresh veggies. Eat as many as possible in their raw state and steam the rest. Vary the color to maximize the vitamin content, remembering that orange and yellow signal foods packed with beta-carotene. Load up on carrots, apricots, peaches, nectarines, papaya, mango, and cantaloupe. Apples are loaded with vitamin C, as are citrus fruits. All of the berries provide powerful antioxidant power with minimal sugar. Eat blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries to your heart’s content. And don’t forget your green leafy vegetables: spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, Bibb lettuce, radicchio, and red leaf lettuce provide you with much needed vitamins.
- Olive oil: Studies have shown that mono-saturated fatty acids found in olive oil, canola oil, and avocado may act as powerful anti-cancer agents. Your body requires good fat to function at its peak; brain and organ function depend on adequate levels of it.
- Prenatal vitamins: Women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms (mcg) per day of folic acid. Most prenatal vitamins pack at least 400 mcg of this critical B-vitamin punch—many contain as much as 800 mcg. Ingesting this amount seems to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in babies. Talk with your doctor if you have not considered taking a prenatal vitamin before becoming pregnant. Meanwhile, load up on green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and nuts, legumes, and grains, all of which contain folic acid.
Find Your Ideal Weight
- During the preconception phase, try to be neither underweight nor overweight. Moms-to-be who are underweight tend to have lower birth weight babies. And if you are extra lean—with low body fat percentages—you may have a harder time than usual conceiving. Women who are overweight tend to have problems with regular ovulation and would do best to get down to ideal weight as reasonably as possible. Medical experts advise a steady weight loss goal of one to two pounds per week until an ideal weight is attained. These guidelines for healthy preconception eating will help you develop a diet that’s nutritionally sound and aids in reaching your ideal weight.
- Enjoy this special time in your life! Becoming a mother will allow you to fully appreciate how truly unique it is to be a woman. We are so blessed to be able to take on such an active role in the creation process. The act of procreation, of pregnancy, of nursing, and of child-rearing is deeply moving and profoundly physical.
- Celebrate the way your body is designed. Enjoy your strong legs, and make them even stronger pre-pregnancy by walking around your neighborhood every night. It’ll prepare you for chasing your toddler in a few years!
- Delight in your muscular arms. Lift lightweight barbells every couple days, swim laps, or play basketball. Keep them strong in preparation for countless hours of holding that babe close.