The first 1000 days of life are critical for the health of your children, turns out it starts well before you are in fact pregnant!
The 3-6 months before you conceive your child are an important time to set-up positive diet and lifestyle habits that will support you and your baby throughout pregnancy and those first few years.
Plus, you don’t want to be on the backfoot with a nutritional deficiency heading into pregnancy where your requirements for key nutrients such as folate, iron and iodine are on the rise.
So, what are the 8 essential nutrients to prioritise during the pre-conception period?
8 essential nutrients for pre-conception
Folate (or folic acid in supplement form) is essential to promote healthy development of your baby’s neural tube (brain and spinal cord) which starts to form often before you even get a positive pregnancy test! Folate can be found in lentils, legume beans, green leafy vegetables (the darker, the better!), avocados and oranges. Being low in folate is quite common in women, so taking prenatal supplements that include folate at least 3 months (ideally 6 months) prior to conception, can help reach adequate stores in the body to avoid neural tube defects like spina bifida in your baby.
It is so important, in fact, that most Australian bread and bread flours are mandatorily fortified with folic acid to help boost the folic acid status of women to help ensure that they are covered if they do become unexpectedly pregnant.
Iodine is an essential mineral that is important for a healthy thyroid and thyroid hormone production. These thyroid hormones are needed for normal growth and development of tissues in your body. If iodine levels are low during early pregnancy, then this can affect baby with growth and developmental abnormalities.
Oysters, sushi with seaweed, tinned salmon and bread made with iodised salt are iodine-containing foods to include prior to conception. Supplementation is also required and should be discussed with your GP and dietitian, check your prenatal supplement has got you covered and get some tips on how to choose a good one here.
If you’re not on top of your supplementation pre-pregnancy, you are covered by mandatorily fortified iodised salt that is used in most Australian breads.
Zinc is an essential trace element important for rapid cell division and growth during pregnancy. Your zinc demands increase during pregnancy and lactation, which makes it only harder if you are low in zinc prior to conception, to meet the requirements to adequately support the rapid growth your baby will be doing in your belly!
Zinc can be found in a variety of food items such as oysters, beef, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, cheese, cashews, legumes such as chickpeas, and seeds!
The importance of vitamin D before and during pregnancy has been studie sin the prevention of allergies and eczema as well as a potential role in autoimmune conditions for your future baby such as type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition, in your baby after birth. T1DM is where the body does not produce enough, or no insulin to take the sugars from the bloodstream into the cells of the body to use for energy. Studies show a rich vitamin D intake leading up to, and during pregnancy, can reduce the risk of your baby developing type 1 diabetes later in life.
The latest research suggests it may play a role in hormonal balance, ovulation, egg development, and embryo quality, more so if you are deficient than anything else. Check your Vitamin D status with your GP and load up on fortified eggs, salmon and tuna, and most importantly some sunshine, in the meantime.
Getting enough healthy fats alongside vitamin D is important to help your body absorb this important nutrient, so check you are getting some extra virgin olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts & seeds each day.
This water-soluble B vitamin plays a role in brain and nervous system function. If deficient in Vitamin B12 you may have difficulty falling pregnant, as inadequate levels can cause changes in the blood that affect egg development and ovulatory function.
You can find B12 in any animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk, as well as fortified milk alternatives like soy milk. For those women who follow a vegan diet – supplementation is necessary as there are no plant-based sources of B12, so it is best to speak to your GP to check your current levels and a dietitian for the best supplement regime.
Iron is a nutrient on nearly every woman’s list of nutrients to focus on to ensure you are feeling energetic and replace your losses from your menstrual cycle.
A large research study looked at low iron and pregnancy outcomes found that a woman’s daily prenatal intake of iron improves the birth weight of your baby!
Avoiding iron deficiency before becoming pregnant can make it easier to maintain your iron stores, especially when you reach your 3rd trimester where your iron needs nearly double! From 18 mg per day to 27 mg per day. These iron stores will be used to produce more blood to support you and your growing bub.
Omega-3, especially the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) type is essential for your baby’s brain and eye development. With research to suggest it is beneficial for enhancing female fertility, think of oily fish for the best source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna or trout are excellent sources and should be included at least twice a week in a pre-conception diet. Research has shown that couples that consume seafood at least 8 times per cycle (roughly twice a week) had a shorter time to conception than those that consumed less.
For those of you following a vegetarian or vegan diet, or simply choose not to eat fish, include chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds or walnuts each day for the plant-based version of DHA.
Choline is an essential nutrient but not identified as a vitamin or mineral. Choline is important for the brain development of your future baby, much like omega-3 fatty acids. Choline is not found in many prenatal supplements available on the market, so diet could not be more important. 2 eggs a day will give you about 50 per cent of your daily choline needs, then be sure to include beef, chicken and fish regularly alongside potatoes, mushrooms, beans, quinoa, milk and yoghurt as well as broccoli to help give your choline status a boost!
So, before the first trimester fatigue strikes, get on top of your nutrition and diet early when trying to conceive to not only enhance your chances of conceiving but also support a happy and healthy pregnancy!
Want to get more information about optimising your pre-conception health? Download Stefanie Valakas’, pre-conception lifestyle checklist for him and for her (click through to Stefanie’s bio page below for the link).