Healthy eating for conception and pregnancy

Stacey King

If you've taken the decision to try for a baby then the chances are you'll want to do as much as you can to improve your chances - and often that means making lifestyle changes for prospective parents.

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As well as stopping smoking and cutting right back on the booze, you may also need to address your diet in order to give yourself the best chances of conceiving. Of course, once pregnant, you'll want to ensure you eat healthily to help give your growing baby the best start possible.

Being very overweight or very underweight can both hinder your chances - so it makes sense to try to attain a sensible weight before trying for a baby.

Even a small weight loss can greatly improve your chances of falling pregnant if you have a BMI of more than 30. But don't embark on a crash diet or you might do more harm than good.

Men should avoid crash dieting too, as severely restricting calorie intake can affect sperm production in some cases.

What to eat and what to avoid
Studies have shown that alcohol consumption can dramatically affect a woman's chance of conception, by as much as 50 per cent in some cases, so many women like to give up completely.

Mums-to-be are advised to take folic acid supplements while trying for a baby and during pregnancy, as it's been shown to lower the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida.

Coffee can have a negative effect on female fertility but can actually increase male sperm mobility, so while you might want to give up, perhaps it's best that he doesn't! Vitamin E, calcium, zinc and vitamin D are also believed to help improve men's potency.

There are not really any specific foods to eat to increase your chances of conceiving, but it is an excellent idea to get in a healthy eating habit anyway - ready for when you conceive, which brings us on to...

Healthy eating during pregnancy
Drinking plenty of fluids is important - and as already mentioned, very little of that should be alcohol. Eight glasses of water a day is a good target.

Getting your five portions (at least) of fruit and veg is even more important than normal, and this should be combined with lean protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, well-cooked eggs, pulses and beans.

Fat and sugar-rich foods should be kept in check, so don't splurge on the biscuits - and try to stick to low-fat dairy products too.

Starchy carbs are important to keep your energy levels up, such as potatoes and wholewheat bread, rice and pasta. Fibre-rich foods are also a good idea, as they will help to prevent constipation and piles, which can be a problem during pregnancy.

While the saying goes that you're 'eating for two' the accepted advice is to eat the same amount as normal - and not necessarily double up on portions.

Vitamins and minerals
Too much vitamin A is thought to pose a potential risk to unborn babies, so it is advised that pregnant women avoid liver and liver products such as paté.

Supplements of vitamin D - which assists the formation of healthy bones and teeth - are taken by many women, with fortified foods such as margarine being another alternative.

The body's need for calcium doubles during pregnancy, and this can be met by increasing (low-fat) dairy intake. Three servings a day is the official advice. Other sources of calcium include tinned fish with soft, small bones that are eaten - such as salmon and sardines, green vegetables, bread and dried apricots and tofu.

Iron levels are monitored throughout pregnancy and if they fall too low then a supplement can be prescribed. Iron absorption from food can be boosted by taking vitamin C and hindered by tannins - so swap your cup of tea for a glass of orange juice in the morning!

For a list of foods to avoid in pregnancy, as they may make you ill or harm your baby, visit the NHS Choices website.

Did you lose weight in order to conceive? Did you get any strange cravings when pregnant? Leave a comment below...