This is a featured guest post by Elizabeth Ward, MS., RD, author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy. Elizabeth regularly writes for publications such as Men’s Fitness and WebMD, and blogs about family nutrition and weight control issues for USAToday.com.
Is a baby in your plans for the near future? Perhaps you’d like another child, but you’re just not ready yet. No matter. When you’re in the childbearing years, it pays for you (and your male partner!), to prime your body for pregnancy, especially when you consider the possibility that conception can occur when you least expect it.
Preparing for pregnancy doesn’t differ much from living a healthy lifestyle. Here are three steps, culled from my book, Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy, to help you have the healthiest child possible.
1. Practice Girth Control
Being underweight or overweight may thwart a woman’s chances to conceive; when a future dad is overweight, his excess body fat may make matters worse.
In addition to affecting fertility, being overweight when you conceive increases the risk of certain birth defects, including heart defects, and neural tube defects (NTD) like spina bifida. Overweight women are also more prone to type 2 diabetes which may prove problematic for mom and baby. And, women who enter pregnancy overweight tend to stay that way until delivery, and well beyond.
Starting a pregnancy at a healthy weight gives your child a better chance of developing properly, and reduces health risks for mom during pregnancy, including high blood pressure.
Determine your body mass index (BMI) to know whether your weight falls into a healthy range. For help achieving a healthy weight at any stage of life, consult a registered dietitian (RD) by using the American Dietetic Association’s free referral service.
2. Fill in Nutrient Gaps
Eating a balanced diet based on Choose My Plate will help you and your partner get the nutrients that contribute to your good health, and that of your child’s, but that often go missing from the typical American diet, including calcium, fiber, magnesium, vitamins C and E, potassium, and carotenoids (used by the body to make vitamin A).
Women in their childbearing years should pay particular attention to their intake of folic acid and iron. You need 400 micrograms (ug) of folic acid every day if you are capable of conceiving a child. That’s because folic acid helps to prevent NTDs, during the first 30 days of pregnancy – often when a woman does not know she’s pregnant.
Women who are not pregnant require 18 milligrams of iron daily, but many are not meeting that quota. Iron-deficiency anemia affects an estimated 8 million American women. It’s harder to correct an iron deficiency during pregnancy, when iron requirements soar, so make sure you get enough iron each day before conception occurs.
While dietary supplements are not suitable substitutes for a balanced diet, a daily multivitamin fills in small gaps in nutrients that can sap fertility, particularly in men who don’t get enough vitamin C, folic acid, and zinc.
Women who may become pregnant should take a daily multivitamin with 100% of the Daily Value for iron and folic acid. Men don’t need the extra iron and should take a multivitamin with no iron, or very low iron.
3. Re-Think Your Drinks
If you’re trying to conceive, it may be time to evaluate your caffeine and alcohol consumption.
Some studies suggest excessive amounts of caffeine may result in miscarriage and stillbirth, while others question caffeine’s effects. While the jury is still out regarding the safety of caffeine during pregnancy, it’s probably wise to limit your intake. The March of Dimes recommends 200 milligrams or less of daily caffeine- about the amount found in 10 ounces of Starbucks coffee – after conception occurs. It’s not a bad idea to start cutting back beforehand, however. There is some evidence that caffeine may hamper fertility.
There’s no safe amount of alcoholic beverages to drink during pregnancy, but how about when you’re trying to conceive? It makes sense to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine when you’re sure that you’re not pregnant. However, health professionals recommend erring on the side of caution when trying to conceive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the March of Dimes contend that drinking and trying for a baby do not mix. Even moderate drinking (one or fewer drinks daily for a woman; two or less for a man) may make it more difficult to conceive for some couples. In addition, it is possible, no matter how careful you are, to be pregnant and not know it, and alcohol is particularly detrimental to a developing baby during the first trimester.
In men, heavy drinking produces sperm with defects that may hinder their ability to fertilize an egg. Although the link between moderate drinking and fertility is murky, it’s wise for men to play it safe by limiting alcoholic beverages to two or less a day.