Nutrition plays such a significant role in building a new life that women planning on parenthood should start considering nutrition well before pregnancy begins.
Both low and high body fat can affect women’s hormone levels. Research has shown that a certain level of body fat is needed to sustain normal fertility. Fertility drugs tend to be less effective in substantially underweight and overweight women.
Alcohol, caffeine and even inadequate protein and the wrong fats can also affect fertility and pregnancy outcomes. Therefore, women planning on pregnancy should focus on healthier diets and change risky habits. For example, consider limiting your caffeine intake to 200mg per day, or about two cups of regular coffee or tea.
A new embryo needs the right nutrients, especially when building the brain and spinal cord. Folic acid is important for preventing neural tube defects that can occur in the embryo three weeks after conception, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. In those early weeks, that tiny ball of cells essentially doubles every 24 hours. These fetal cells need the right conditions and nutrients to help them organize and align themselves, starting with the brain and spinal cord. Significant sources of folic acid include leafy dark green vegetables, legumes, seeds and liver. Black-eyed peas, lentils, okra, asparagus and turnip greens are especially rich in folic acid.
Iron is also important. Even in developed countries many women are somewhat iron-deficient when their pregnancies start. If you wait until the first pre-natal checkup (at 12 weeks) to detect iron deficiency, you’ll have missed an opportunity to influence critical early fetal development. Iron from animal sources is more easily absorbed than the iron derived from plant sources, but the latter can be boosted. For maximum absorption from non-meat sources of iron, add a little meat with legumes at the same meal, or include fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C.
Pre-conception nutrition is not just for women. Male fertility is also vulnerable to lifestyle factors. Heavy smokers and drinkers are at higher risk of sperm abnormalities. Sperm development occurs over 70 to 80 days, so there can be up to three months between a change in habits and a change in sperm quality. Plan ahead if you’re trying to get pregnant and if your husband likes a night out. (That lifestyle will change after the baby is born anyway, so might as well get him prepared.)
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.