Eating Right From The Start
Preparing to conceive
Every mother wants her baby to be as healthy and strong as possible. Well, the best way to do that is to start at the very beginning: before conception.
Not only can eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones) help you to have a healthy baby, it can actually make pregnancy possible.
So where to begin? Experts agree: Get your folate!
Kelly Shanahan, MD, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist, says that even before conception is confirmed, women can start implementing a healthier diet containing essential vitamins and nutrients, such as folic acid. Fertility specialist Mark Kan, MD, agrees that when it comes to preparing to conceive, "Folic acid is the most important dietary subject."
Folic acid, also known as folate, is necessary for proper cell growth and development of the embryo. According to nutritionist Martha Belury, PhD, RD, "Folic acid in a vitamin supplement, when taken one month before conception and throughout the first trimester, has been proven to reduce the risk for an neural tube defect-affected pregnancy by 50 to 70 percent."
If you're trying to conceive, the March of Dimes recommends taking a multivitamin supplement containing 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. It's also important to have a healthy diet, which means eating food that's rich in folic acid, which include leafy green vegetables, avocados, peanuts, fortified cereals, breads and orange juice.
Building healthy eating habits
Belury says, "A wise approach to good nutrition habits during pregnancy is to consider choosing foods with high nutrient density. The same concept holds true for choosing beverage foods." A nutrient-dense food is one that provides a high amount of nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, protein) relative to caloric content.
So now, more than ever, it's time to rethink your food choices. To start:
- Look for foods with plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber
- Cut back on fat, extra sugar, preservatives and other additives
- Go organic -- buy products that are pesticide-free
- Look for hormone-free dairy products (such as those not containing Bovine growth hormone: rBST)
In addition to the foods you should eat, there are also certain foods you should avoid. These include (but aren't limited to):
- Raw or undercooked fish (including sushi), shellfish, eggs, meat or poultry
- Swordfish, shark, tilefish or king mackerel -- however, other fish may be consumed in moderation
- Unpasteurized milk and any foods made with it
- Soft cheeses like Brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort and Mexican cheeses such as Quesa Blanca
- Raw egg -- including that in homemade cookie dough and batters
As additional precautions, be sure to wash raw vegetables and fruits thoroughly. Cook ready-to-eat meats (like hot dogs) and leftovers until steaming hot.
Drinking to your health
Water should be your number one beverage before - and during - pregnancy. The human body is mostly composed of water, so consider it a vital nutrient. Drinking plenty of water, that is, a minimum of eight 8-ounce glasses each day, also helps flush your system of toxins. Belury notes, "Water is a very important beverage to consume in ample amounts before, during, and after pregnancy."
When you've had your water, Belury says that fruit and vegetable juices can provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals with minimal to moderate calories.
And even though they can taste great, soft drinks offer empty calories, so consume them in moderation. Diet sodas, in addition to not being a positive contribution to your nutrition, have an artificial sweetener (such as aspartame, saccharin or acesulfame-K) in place of the sugar. In general, and in the absence of any maternal health problems, the March of Dimes and the American Dietetic Association agree that aspartame (also known as Nutrasweet) and acesulfame-K are safe to consume during pregnancy. However, the American Dietetic Association notes that saccharin can cross the placenta and may remain in fetal tissues, therefore, you should carefully consider your use of saccharin during pregnancy and while trying to conceive.
An ingredient in sodas, coffee, tea and even chocolate, caffeine is a stimulant (which means it can keep you awake or make you jumpy) and a diuretic (which means it stimulates urination, thereby reducing fluid levels in your body at a time when you want to be adequately hydrated).
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, some studies have suggested that high levels of caffeine intake may actually extend the time it takes to conceive. However, when other lifestyle variables (smoking, for example) are considered, these findings are inconclusive. More recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Harvard Medical School and the University of California at Berkeley show that moderate caffeine consumption does not reduce a woman's chance of becoming pregnant.
During pregnancy, however, studies have shown that caffeine may cause a miscarriage or could slow the growth of your developing baby if you consume more than 300 mg (an amount equal to three cups of coffee) per day. If you have concerns about your caffeine intake, be sure to talk to your caregiver.
If there is any one beverage type to avoid while trying to conceive, alcohol -- in any of its forms -- is it. Why? First, birth defects associated with prenatal alcohol exposure can occur in the first 3 to 8 weeks of pregnancy, before you even know if you are pregnant, according to the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. And although early pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable time, damage to your baby can occur throughout pregnancy as a result of continued alcohol exposure as organ systems grow to maturity.
Furthermore, if you are trying to achieve pregnancy, beer, wine and other spirits may hamper your efforts. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that women who drink alcohol may have a harder time getting pregnant.
Smart for you, smart for baby
Without a doubt, the human body is an incredible thing. The things you eat recombine in an amazing way to create a precious new life. Making wise, informed decisions about your food and drink now -- even before conception -- will benefit both you and your baby for the long term.