If there was ever a time to focus on consuming a balanced diet, it’s as you prepare for pregnancy. You can’t underestimate the power of food and it is now well established that improving nutritional status prior to pregnancy has a positive influence on a baby’s development and future health, as well as your own health and wellbeing. During this time your diet needs to provide you with sufficient energy and an abundance of nutrients to meet your usual requirements, as well as laying down stores of nutrients required for foetal development in pregnancy and lactation. Yet surprisingly, the dietary requirements for pregnant women are actually very similar to those for other non-pregnant women, just with a few notable exceptions...
While nutrition needs increase with each trimester, the increase in caloric need is actually only about 320 calories, which is equivalent to two boiled eggs and some avocado. Therefore, good nutrition during pregnancy is much more about the quality of food eaten, as opposed to the quantity. Ultimately, the right way to ‘eat for two’ is to eat well-balanced meals made from whole, unprocessed foods consistently.
All nutrients play various individual and collective roles in reproductive health, but the following stand out as key nutrients you should be prioritising as you prepare for pregnancy.
Folate is required for DNA synthesis, which is the production of new DNA and is also needed for the production of blood. Insufficient intake of folate during the preconception period and the first six weeks of pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of Neural Tube Defects.
Found in leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, silverbeet, brussels sprouts and is also found in legumes and eggs.
Your body uses iron to make haemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that moves oxygen throughout your body. During pregnancy the demand for iron increases to keep up with the demand in blood supply.
Found in red meat, darker cuts of poultry (such as chicken thighs), offal, legumes and beans, leafy greens, legumes and oats. There are two different forms of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal products and is more bioavailable than non-heme forms so it is important to make sure that you are aware of this if you are on a plant-based diet.
B12 is required for DNA synthesis, methylation and maintaining normal blood and neurological function.
Found in red meat, eggs, fish, poultry and milk. Unfortunately there are no reliable plant sources of B12. I recommend an addition supplement for vegetarian and vegans.
Vitamin D is required for the development of the foetal skeleton, optimal immune function, gene expression and hormone secretion.
Found in fatty-fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon, as well as eggs yolks and mushrooms. Although Vitamin D is found in some foods, they contain relatively low quantities and safe, regular sun exposure is still required to ensure you meet your daily requirements.
Choline is required for spinal cord formation, placental function and early brain development. Despite choline not being spoken about as much in relation to pregnancy, it is extremely important and arguably just as important as folic acid.
Choline is predominantly found in eggs, with smaller amounts found in meat, poultry and peanut butter.
Dietary iodine is needed to make essential thyroid hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate and promote growth and development throughout the body. Iodine is especially important for early foetal brain development and thyroid function which regulated growth.
Found in seaweed, eggs, iodised sea salt and cooked seafood and shellfish.
Protective against pre-eclampsia, supports skeleton development and muscle and nerve transmission. Calcium also inhibits lead mobilisation caused by bone break down in pregnancy.
Found in full-fat dairy products, fish with bones such as red/pink salmon and sardines, almonds, dried figs, soy, chia seeds and sesame seeds.
Zinc is essential for the embryogenesis which is the formation and development of an embryo and spermatogenesis, the formation and development of sperm. Zinc is involved in up to 300 different enzymes within the body and is therefore in very high demand during pregnancy. Other zinc-dependent pathways are immunity, carbohydrate and protein metabolism and cognition and behaviour.
Found in eggs, red meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Not technically a micronutrient but probiotics, fermented and fibre-rich foods provide the nutrients needed to build a healthy microbiome with a diverse range of bacteria that the mother and father will pass on to their baby.
Found in kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kvass, tempeh, whole grains, vegetables and fruit.
The best way to ensure you are getting enough nutrients as you prepare for pregnancy is to focus on eating a wide variety of whole foods that are (where possible) organic and in season. Ideally, we want to be including foods that are naturally rich sources of the nutrients required for optimal reproduction and development, instead of having to take handfuls of vitamin pills. Additional micronutrient supplementation is still recommenced as your “insurance policy”, but focusing on trying to meet requirements through your diet is the best place to start.