Pregnancy from conception to birth and beyond is a long journey. While most would describe it as an amazing experience, it is not free of few challenges along the way. This article is the first of a six-part series on nutrition and exercise recommendations for the cycle of pregnancy and its focus is on nutritionally preparing for pregnancy.
The pregnancy journey begins prior to conception. Women that are contemplating pregnancy should focus on a few key goals including achieving a healthy weight, proper vitamin and mineral intake, exercise, reducing stress, and eliminating harmful substances.
Achieving a Healthy Weight
Attaining a healthy weight is one of the most important factors affecting fertility (for females and males), conception, and overall health. Research has shown that being overweight or underweight can affect hormone levels and alter ovulation, which make it harder to conceive. For those that are overweight, even a 5% decrease in body weight has shown significant improvement in conception rates. For those that are underweight, achieving a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 19-24 (normal range) improves the rate of conception. Achieving a healthy weight, though, should be done gradually and safely as drastic weight changes can be harmful. Seeking guidance and support from a Registered Dietitian can be very helpful in this process.
Body Mass Index (BMI) = weight (kg)/height (m)2
- Underweight: < 18.5
- Normal weight: 18.5 – 24.9
- Overweight: 26.0-29.9
- Obese: > 30
Vitamins and Minerals
Woman of childbearing age should consume a variety of foods to provide the vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy pregnancy. The most important being folic acid, iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, calcium, choline, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). These vitamins and minerals are plentiful in a varied diet, but supplementation may be necessary in some cases and should be discussed with your Physician and/or Registered Dietitian.
The following foods are rich in the vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy pregnancy:
Folic acid: legumes, green leafy vegetables, whole wheat bread, citrus fruits and juices, enriched cereals and pastas
Iron: dried fruits, iron-fortified cereals, lean red meat, fish, poultry
Zinc: whole grains, fortified cereals, yogurt, meat, shellfish, legumes
Vitamin B-12: fortified cereals, milk beverages, shellfish, organ meats, fish, poultry
Calcium: milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, cottage cheese, calcium-fortified beverages such as orange juice and soymilk
Choline: eggs, legumes, low-fat milk, fish, beef, broccoli, cauliflower
Vitamin D: fatty fish, fortified dairy and soy products, fortified eggs, fortified cereals
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: fatty fish, fortified eggs, flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, algae oil
Exercise plays a vital role in pregnancy. Current recommendations include 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 30 minutes most days of the week. Exercise modes and amounts may vary throughout pregnancy. This will be discussed in greater detail in future articles.
Stress reduction prior to pregnancy is beneficial as high stress levels can certainly affect conception, lead to unhealthy eating, and cause weight fluctuations. In addition, reducing stress levels prior most likely will lead to a more stress-free pregnancy. One of the most productive ways to reduce stress is through exercise and this will be discussed in more detail next month.
Eliminating Harmful Substances
It goes without saying that harmful substances such as alcohol, drugs, tobacco, etc. should be eliminated from the diet and/or daily routine. If you are having trouble eliminating these substances, discuss options with your health care provider.
Preparing nutritionally for pregnancy can increase the chances of conception and provide the foundation for a healthy pregnancy. For most, small changes can improve pregnancy outcomes and lead to a happier and healthier pregnancy.
The next six-blog articles discuss the current nutrition and exercise recommendations for women before, during, and after pregnancy. Pregnancy can certainly be a trying and confusing time and these articles are intended to provide answers to the most popular questions women (and often their providers) ask.
More information can be found in 100 Questions and Answers About Sports Nutrition and Exercise by Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC.
Do you have a nutrition or exercise question? If so, submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org . Questions will be answered on a monthly basis.