Nutrition is often overlooked yet is of vital importance for preconception care. The right diet is vital for preparing the body for what is to come, improving chances of conceiving, and creating the right environment for a healthy pregnancy.
Aside from the specific nutrients discussed below, other important areas of your health that should be considered include addressing current lifestyle habits - with a particular emphasis on alcohol and coffee intake, smoking, stress, sleep, and exercise. A women’s BMI is also an important factor in preconception planning, so achieving
and maintaining a healthy BMI (that’s neither too high or too low) can improve the likelihood of conception and a healthy pregnancy.
Vitamin B9 is an essential nutrient that’s particularly important to obtain in preconception nutrition preparation. It tends to be referred to as either folate or folic acid, which are in fact two separate forms of the vitamin and tend to cause some confusion. For clarity, folate is the natural food-derived form of vitamin B9, whilst folic acid is the synthetic type.
This vitamin is of particular importance during the first few weeks of pregnancy, playing a key role in the development of a foetus’ circulatory system amongst other things. Furthermore, a mother’s deficiency becomes a risk factor for neural-tube defects such as spina-bifida, as well as early miscarriage. With most birth defects developing in the earliest stages of pregnancy, it’s therefore recommended that women trying for a baby begin supplementing vitamin B9 at least one month prior to conceiving through to 12 weeks post-conception.
When choosing a supplement, opting for folate (as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate), rather than folic acid, is far preferable as it is most readily absorbed and converted by the body. That said, before writing off any supplement brand that refers to folic acid in its ingredients, it’s worth noting that they may be using the natural folate form but refer to it as folic acid as this is more widely recognisable for consumers - so a quick check for the ingredients will confirm this for you.
Of course, the naturally-occurring folate form of vitamin B6 is also available through foods, including avocados, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, cavil Nero, etc.), broccoli, lentils, cauliflower, and asparagus. However, in many cases it can be difficult to get the recommended daily levels through diet alone so choosing a quality supplement brand, that provides 400mcg of folate daily, is advised.
Vitamin D is another important nutrient to consider with regards preconception nutrition, playing a vital role in foetal bone health and the development of bone mass. With insufficient levels of UV sunlight available from mid-October to April in the UK, our skin is unable to synthesise adequate levels of vitamin D and therefore deficiency tends to be common in the UK. Whilst the vitamin can be obtained in food sources such as oily fish, eggs and mushrooms, dietary intake is usually fairly limited so supplementing 10mcg vitamin D during pregnancy (through to breastfeeding) is also recommended.
Women have a general tendency to be more iron deficient than men, particularly those who experience heavy menstruation. Building iron stores in preparation for conception is important to support both mother (e.g. to cover blood loss during delivery) and infant (e.g. foetal growth and development). As is always the case with iron, there are no formal guidelines for daily intake due to individual factors that may feed into necessary requirements. However, women with low iron levels / low iron intake are advised to supplement in order to build stores and decrease pregnancy-related risks associated with anaemia. During pre and post-conception, eating iron-rich foods is also a valuable way to boost the body’s stores. Sources include red meat, oysters, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrain bread, and tofu.
It’s worth noting that vitamin C-rich foods will help absorption of vegetarian-based sources, whilst tea and coffee impairs absorption.