Preparing for pregnancy: Your nutritional guide

My husband and I are planning to get pregnant. We are confused about the "correct" diet to follow when trying to conceive. Your advice?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Congratulations on deciding to start a family! Your children will surely benefit from the steps you take now to improve your diet. In fact, eating nutritionally is one of the most important things you can do for your baby.

Ideally, you should start three months to one year prior to conception to make sure that your nutritional status is at its best. Nutrient stores should be well-stocked, and you should be neither too heavy, nor too thin. Pregnancy is no time to be dieting.

To maximize your nutrient stores before becoming pregnant, you should consume these foods each day:

  • 2 to 3 calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt or calcium fortified juices.
  • 7 servings of fruits and vegetables. Select at least 2 servings rich in folic acid (to help guard against neural tube defects in your baby-to-be), such as lentils, orange juice, spinach and broccoli. Select at least one food rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, cantaloupe, kiwi and papaya.
  • 2 servings or more of a lean, high-protein food, such as white meat poultry.
  • 6 serving or more of whole-grain foods, including brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

Along with a healthy diet, it would be smart to take a vitamin and mineral supplement that contains 100 to 150 percent of the Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs) for all vitamins and minerals. Make sure the supplement contains 400 micrograms of folic acid and 18 milligrams of iron each day. More and more, studies are showing the connection between supplements and a decreased incidence of many different types of birth defects.

Supplementing with folic acid before conception can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by as much as 70 percent. The U.S. Public Health Service currently recommends that all women of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid per day because neural tube defects arise very early in pregnancy.

As for iron, it can be difficult for women to get the amount they need from food while still staying within a reasonable calorie count. Extra iron, however, is important to help supply the future baby's needs and the increased blood volume that occurs during pregnancy. Iron deficiency during pregnancy can result in complications including vaginal bleeding, extreme fatigue, a low-birthweight baby and postpartum fatigue.

It is critical to point out, however, that some vitamins and minerals can be toxic if taken in too large of an amount. Vitamins A and D can cause birth defects if taken in megadoses. Therefore, be safe by choosing a supplement that does not exceed the 100 to 150 percent RDI plus the 400 micrograms of folic acid. During your visit with your midwife or other health-care provider, ask what brands they recommend for a prenatal/prepregnancy supplement.

The purpose of supplements is to add to an already healthy diet. The foods you do and don't eat are as important as the vitamin pill that you take. By combining a healthy diet with supplements, you'll be giving your baby a great start in life!

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