Most of the time, living a healthy lifestyle means making responsible choices. If you don't, however, you're the one who pays the price. But when you're trying to conceive or you're already pregnant, what goes into your body impacts both you and the fetus your body is working hard to grow.
Nutritionists and doctors agree that simple lifestyle choices around diet and exercize can have a great effect on both a woman’s chances at conceiving as well as the ease of her pregnancy. These factors of day-to-day lifestyle do improve your chances of achieving pregnancy. Dr. Alan Copperman, Founding Partner and Medical Director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York (RMA), states, “The best choice a woman can make while trying optimize her fertility is to be attentive to her physical and mental health, by integrating a well-balanced diet full of nutritious foods, incorporating moderate exercise, getting steady rest each night, and taking a daily multi-vitamin. Not only will these help to achieve an ideal sense of health, but these basic activities can actually optimize health when preparing for pregnancy.” With the right lifestyle choices, a woman can enjoy a “graceful, easy, effortless, nurturing pregnancy — creating a delicious, easy, smooth transition into this new state of being,” Sally Kravich, M.S. Holistic Nutrition, says.
There’s a lot to know about what you can do to help your body conceive happily and healthily, but there’s no need to let it overwhelm you. Here’s the breakdown on what to put in your body and what to keep away from:
PART 1: Vital Nutrients
Dara Godfrey, a registered dietician at RMA, advises clients to emphasize five main nutrients prior to and during pregnancy:
FOLIC ACID: 400 mcg from supplements, and the remainder from food. Folic acid is especially important in the first trimester to help prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
Best sources: Green leafy vegetables, black beans, brussels sprouts, lentils, oranges, and peanuts
IRON: Iron is important for delivering oxygen to the fetus and helps prevent anemia in the mother-to-be. To maximize the benefits, eat iron with a source of vitamin C, which optimizes it’s absorption.
Best Sources: Lean beef, shrimp, chicken, fish, eggs, dry beans, oatmeal and tofu
CALCIUM: Calcium helps build the fetus’s bones and prevents bone deterioration in the mother. Aim for 2-3 servings of calcium-rich foods per day.
Best Sources: Milk, yogurt, cheese, dark leafy vegetables, canned salmon, and black beans
VITAMIN C: Vitamin C helps your body fight infection and aids in absorption of calcium and iron. Try to add in one good source a day and consume with your calcium and iron.
Best Sources: Besides citrus, strawberries, papaya, kiwis, mangoes, broccoli, and green peppers are all good sources
PROTEIN: Protein provides the building blocks for tissue growth and repair.
Best Sources: Lean meats, poultry, seafood, nuts, eggs, milk, and other dairy products
PART 2: What to Eat, What Not To Eat, and Lifestyle Changes
Eat REAL Foods: “Oftentimes my clients come in and tell me that in attempting to eat healthy, they make egg white omelets with fake cheese,” Kravich laments — “I want them to eat REAL eggs, with the yolk, and SKIP the cheese. The egg yolk is where you get the omega-3s, and those are nutrients crucial for healthy eggs.” (The human kind, that is.) “I will have a pregnant woman eat a dozen eggs a week, because the importance of omega-3s cannot be underestimated.”
Natural foods that are sometimes thought of as unhealthy can actually be a great way to get essential nutrients. Another example: Don’t be afraid of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado.
Eat Organic, Local Foods as Much as Possible: If that’s not an option, then prioritize organic dairy and eggs, and grass-fed meat. “Although there are few studies showing the benefit to eating organic/local meats during pregnancy, I do recommend going for local grass fed beef as much as possible,” Godfrey says. “Grass fed beef is higher in omega 3s and lower in fat, and getting your meat locally means consuming food that is fresher — less transport time from farm to plate.”
Curb Sugar Consumption: As we know well, sugar is caloric without much nutritional value. Also, it "may impair the calcium-phosphorus ratio, thus making calcium less likely to be absorbed efficiently," Godfrey says. "I always recommend pairing a source of carbohydrate with protein to help you feel fuller longer and prevent the blood sugar surge and dip. Natural sugars from fruit, starchy vegetables and dairy are much better options than white sugar and white flour."
Read the Ingredient List: Ingredient labels are tricky even to experts due to their use of deceptive language: “Eighty percent of packaged foods contain MSG, but the ingredient is often hidden by more benign-sounding names. Basically ‘spices’ is code for MSG,” says Kravich. Sugars are an especially sneaky ingredient. They can be found in unexpected products like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings. Kravich advises examining ingredient lists closely: “Ingredients are listed from greatest to least. Examine healthy-looking foods, like grain crackers. You think, it’s a multigrain, it’s got seeds. It might look really healthy. But if the first ingredient is enriched wheat, followed by corn syrup, sugar, other grains...that means the top two ingredients are sugars,” Kravich warns.
Eliminate All “Diet” Foods and Drinks: Diet foods are filled with unnatural chemicals and ingredients — exactly what the experts recommend avoiding before and during pregnancy. According to Godfrey, “Diet foods may also disrupt our hormone levels and make it more difficult to conceive. For example, I recommend avoiding fat-free yogurt since it contains less estrogen and progesterone (female hormones) and more androgens (male hormones), which may impair ovulation. Also, many diet foods are higher in sugar and salt to help improve the taste.” To reiterate: Go for foods that have small ingredient lists and contain ingredients you’ve heard of!
Eat Your Greens: If veggies are not already a major component of your diet, get them in there big time! “Many green vegetables are super high in folic acid," says Godfrey, who points out that neural tube defects, linked to insufficient folic acid, can occur within the first 28 days of pregnancy. "Because of this, I recommend taking daily prenatal vitamins with folic acid, or a folic acid supplement prior to conceiving."
Eat Cooked Fish Only: Cutting out raw fish (yes, sushi!) is essential to a healthy pregnancy. “Raw fish can contain parasites that can make you and a growing fetus very sick. Although the chances may be slim, why take the risk?" Kravich says. Also, “many fish used to make sushi, especially king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tuna, all contain high levels of mercury. Mercury, consumed in high doses throughout pregnancy, may be linked to brain damage and developmental delays,” Godfrey says. However, she adds, “I DO encourage cooked fish consumption during pregnancy, especially fish and seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout, and sardines.”
PART 3: A Trip To The Health Food Store
Diet is the best way to get the nutrients you need, but with your doctor's permission, you may want to consider one of the following supplements:
- Omega-3 Fish Oil + DHA: Omega-3s are vital for a healthy pregnancy, and since they are not synthesized by the body, they must be obtained either via diet or supplement. “As a dietitian, I always recommend trying to get nutrients through food. Having sufficient omega-3 levels can help avoid such things as preeclampsia and early term labor. It is specifically the DHA in omega-3s that also helps with the development of a fetus's basic cognitive function and provides the building blocks for his/her brain and eye development. Omega-3s can come from a variety of sources, but the best source of DHA is from seafood. Taking a fish oil supplement or consuming cold, oily fresh water fish, like salmon, anchovies, herring and sardines are good ways of getting in DHA,” Godfrey advises.
- At least 1000 IU’s Vitamin D: Godfrey and Kravich both recommend 1000-2000 IU’s of Vitamin D. Most Americans don’t get enough since it’s not found in many foods, and getting Vitamin D from sun tanning is obviously not recommended. “Vitamin D is especially important in the later half of pregnancy when the fetus's bones are forming,” Godfrey notes.
- Probiotics: Take them first thing in the morning. Probiotics have been “shown to help with digestion and support one’s immune system, both of which can be compromised during pregnancy,” Godfrey says.
- Calcium Magnesium: Kravich recommends taking this at at night, as it promotes good sleep as well as both fetus and mama’s skeletal development and strength.
- Prenatal Vitamins: Kravich’s pick is Rainbow Light, a 1-a-day which also works to protect your hair during pregnancy, but discuss options with your doctor before selecting a prenatal vitamin.
PART 4: You Might Want to Send This Article to Your Partner, Too!
It takes two to tango. The good news is that the onus is not solely on you, Miss-Potential-Mama-To-Be. The sperm’s gotta be healthy too. This means all of the above advice can be equally applicable for a man. Advise the man in your life/baby-making-equation to cut back to one cup of coffee a day, cut sugars, and eat the same organic, whole foods you’ll be eating. Plus, it’s always easier to make these kinds of changes as a team than to do it on your own.