It’s important to have a healthy, well-balanced diet before pregnancy, but don’t worry too much if your eating habits aren’t up to scratch in the lead up to your big news.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the foods and drinks you need to avoid when pregnant. From gooey soft cheese to raw fish, glasses of champagne to raw eggs; there are a plethora of rules to adhere to when you’re expecting.
But what about before you’re even pregnant? Does it matter what you eat in the lead up to conception? Accredited Practicing Dietitian Kathryn Hawkins says it does. She believes it’s important to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet before you’re pregnant to ensure you’re in “the best health possible” when you are expecting.
That’s because you can’t predict how your body will manage during pregnancy, she explains. You may be struck by severe morning sickness, become iron deficient, start craving certain foods or even lose weight.
She says, “starting off with a foundation of good health, which includes a well-balanced diet, can mean that better eating habits are maintained during the pregnancy itself”.
A healthy well-balanced diet means loading up on plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and legumes, along with lean meat, dairy, breads and cereals, while steering clear of too many processed, nutrient-poor foods. Hawkins says the most important nutrients you need during pregnancy are folate, calcium and iron, so it’s a good idea to ensure you’re getting plenty of these in your diet beforehand, too.
Dairy products such as smoothies, cheese and yoghurts are great sources of calcium. To get your fill of iron, she recommends eating red meat. Other forms of iron can be found in non-meat sources such as lentils, brown rice, fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables.
Meanwhile, she says foods such as lentils, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, avocados and asparagus are all important sources of folate. While it’s important to load up on foods that contain these key nutrients before becoming pregnant, she stresses it’s also important to take a folic acid supplement before the time comes, too.
That’s because folic acid supplements can help prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in the foetus. NTDs occur when the neural tube doesn’t close properly and can result in conditions like spina bifida. If you’re planning on getting pregnant soon, there are also some foods and drinks Hawkins recommends avoiding.
Alcohol is a big one. She notes there is no safe level of alcohol you can consume while pregnant, which is why she advises steering clear of it altogether. She also advises cutting back on caffeine, or even avoiding it altogether in the lead up to conception, saying it can affect egg quality.
Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Joseph Sgroi agrees that women who are planning to get pregnant should strive for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
However, if you become pregnant unexpectedly and are worried about how you ate before you knew you were expecting, he reassures your diet “probably has enough micronutrients to get you through”.
Hawkins agrees, saying certain measures have been taken to ensure women of childbearing age receive important nutrients. For example, she says, Australia has mandatory folate and iodine fortification in bread, so even if you’re not chowing down on foods naturally high in folate, simply munching on a bread roll means you’ll still consume some of this much-needed vitamin.
While it would be ideal to have a healthy well-balanced diet before becoming pregnant, Hawkins is keen to note you shouldn’t stress about it if you don’t.
“Nobody’s diet is perfect,” says Hawkins, adding, “many babies are conceived in a cloud of champagne and they turn out just fine!”
In fact, she believes it’s more important for parents to be relaxed and to enjoy life in the lead up to starting (or expanding) a family.
If you become pregnant unexpectedly, Dr Sgroi says the most important thing you can do from a dietary standpoint is start using supplements such as folic acid as early as possible.
But don’t worry too much about your baby missing out on key nutrients if your diet has been somewhat less than impressive, says Hawkins.“If anything,” she explains, “the mother ends up a bit depleted and tired, not the baby.”
She adds, “as long as you’re having regular meals and snacks and having a variety of things, it will all balance out”.