Eating your way to pregnancy
Before you start trying to conceive, it's important for both you and your partner to maintain a healthy diet. Eating well, avoiding alcohol, and being within the right weight range for your height will improve your chances of conceiving and will set the conditions for the optimum development of your baby during pregnancy1.
“The nutritional status of a woman before and during pregnancy influences the growth and development of her baby, forming the foundations for their future health.”2
What mum eats matters
Paying attention to your diet is important when you're trying for a baby. If you have low nutrient stores prior to pregnancy, you'll have less to maintain your baby’s growth and development during pregnancy, while a lack of vitamins and minerals may impact your health and well-being too3.
Getting in shape
What you weigh can be as important as what you eat. Maintaining a healthy weight prior to conception can help safeguard your baby’s future health and development. Having a BMI of between 20 and 25, can help reduce the risk of having a low birth weight baby, and pregnancy complications such as high blood pressure and diabetes3.
Use the NHS Choices' tool to calculate your BMI to see if you are a healthy weight for pregnancy.
Your weight also plays a part in your fertility. If you are underweight (with a BMI under 20) you're less likely to conceive.
“Women who have a low BMI (under 20) are less likely to conceive.”4
However research has shown that women who are well below the average or ideal weight can still conceive3, so try not to worry if you fall into this category. Increasing your calorie intake, sensibly, by increasing your portion sizes at mealtimes and including nutritious snacks throughout the day is a good way to gain any necessary weight.
If you have a BMI above 25, your ovulation cycle and response to fertility treatment may be affected. Some women choose to lose weight before trying to conceive, as dieting is not recommended during pregnancy.
“Being overweight does not prevent all women from conceiving.”5
Whilst many overweight mums can conceive naturally, a prospective study of women who were not ovulating has shown that a simple weight loss and physical activity programme can result in natural ovulation, conception and successful pregnancy6. Being overweight during pregnancy may also increase your risk of certain complications, such as higher caesarean section rates and lower breastfeeding rates after delivery17.
What dad eats matters too
While it is not yet fully understood, there are a number of factors, including diet, thought to influence male fertility7. For this reason, it is advisable for prospective dads to pay attention to their diet too. It's also a good idea for dad to keep his weight in check too as overweight parents have been linked to increased obesity risk in their children18.
“Low intake of fruit and vegetables has been associated with low sperm count.”7
Zinc (found in meat, shellfish and milk), selenium (brazil nuts, fish and meat) and vitamin C (oranges, red/green peppers and potatoes) may be of particular importance for sperm production8.
Your ‘what to eat’ checklist when trying to conceive
Ensuring you eat the right foods in the right quantities will help you achieve a balanced diet and may increase your chances of conceiving. This means eating from all of the food groups below, every day:
- Bread, rice, potatoes and other starchy foods. Base your meals on these and choose wholegrain varieties for their fibre content. You'll also get calcium, iron and B vitamins9.
- Fruit and vegetables. Fresh, frozen or canned (avoid those with added salt). Five (x 80g) portions per day are recommended. Variety is key to ensuring a range of nutrients10.
“Smoothies only count as 1 of your 5-a-day if the skins and pulp of the fruit are included.”
- Milk and dairy foods. Two-three portions of milk, yogurt or cheese are a good source of calcium. Choose lower-fat versions and avoid unpasteurised milk or cheeses11.
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans and nuts. Aim for two portions a day, except for fish, which should be eaten twice a week (with one serving being oily fish). Eating fish is good for your health and the development of your baby. However, there are some types of fish to avoid in pregnancy due to their high levels of mercury12.
“Tinned tuna doesn’t count as oily fish, so you can eat this in addition to your maximum of 2 portions a week but do not eat more than four medium sized tins of tuna per week when you are planning a pregnancy or are pregnant.”13
- Fluids. To avoid dehydration, drink 1.5–2 litres (or six–eight 200ml glasses) of water, milk, soup, squash or fruit juices. After exercising or in hot weather, you will need more. It's recommended that you limit your intake of caffeine to 200mg per day to avoid risks or complications during pregnancy14.
- Fat and sugar. Unsaturated fats, like oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados and olive oil, can help to lower cholesterol and provide essential fatty acids. Saturated fats should be kept to a minimum – 20g a day for women and 30g for men15. And sugar should make up no more than 10% of your daily diet – about 50g or ten teaspoons per day for women16.
“Omega 3, found in oily fish, contributes to normal brain and eye development, so is an important nutrient to eat before and during pregnancy.”12
In addition to these foods, folic acid and vitamin D supplements are an important part of your conception diet. Find out more about these prenatal supplements.
Ways to enhance your conception diet:
- Take a folic acid supplement (400mcg) daily for at least three months before conception and for the first trimester of pregnancy
- A 10 mcg vitamin D supplement is recommended every day throughout your pregnancy so it may be a good idea to start taking it if you are trying to conceive
- Swap white bread and pasta for wholemeal varieties
- Eat two portions of oily fish a week – try salmon, mackerel, trout or herring
- Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – one portion = one apple, or two satsumas, or one heaped tbsp of raisins, or three heaped tbsp of cooked carrots
- Drink 1.5–2 litres of fluids a day (preferably water)