Healthy eating for women from Pre-Conception to Post-Natal

If you are thinking of having a baby, here are some helpful tips1:

Check you are eating a healthy diet

Eat well before you are pregnant and you will store up nutrients that will help meet the needs of you and your baby during pregnancy.

It is important to eat a varied diet which includes the following:

Fruit and vegetables

These are good sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Whether fresh, frozen, dried, tinned, or juiced, try to have at least five portions a day.

Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses and textured vegetable protein

Eat two portions a day of these types of food which provide protein and iron. Choose lean meat and poultry and include two servings of fish per week.

Milk and dairy products

Milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are rich in calcium and a good source of protein. Try to have two servings per day and choose lower fat versions when you can.

Starchy foods

Eat plenty of bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes. Choose wholegrain varieties as they have more vitamins and fibre and are more filling.

Unsaturated fats

While it is important not to have too much fat in your diet, it is just as important to have the right type of fat in your diet. Unsaturated fats can reduce cholesterol levels and provide the body with essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are particularly important for the development of the unborn baby. Foods high in unsaturated fats include oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados, sunflower, rapeseed and olive oils and spreads, as well as fortified foods and supplements.

Try to be the correct weight for your height

Having a healthy body weight is important. Being underweight or overweight can make it more difficult to become pregnant and increases the risk of having problems during pregnancy2.

Follow the healthy eating guidelines above, cut down on foods high in sugar and fat such as cakes and biscuits and exercise regularly. This is the best way to achieve a healthy body weight.

Supplements

Folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. You should start taking a supplement containing 400mcg folic acid per day as soon as you stop using contraception. You can also eat foods containing folic acid or folate such as green leafy vegetables, beans, oranges, and fortified bread and breakfast cereals.

DHA omega-3 helps to support brain development in infants and has a number of other health benefits for mom and baby. If you are concerned you are not getting enough DHA through your normal diet, ask your doctor about alternative ways to increase your intake of DHA.

Other supplements are not normally necessary if you are eating a healthy diet. However, if your diet is not as healthy as it could be, then a supplement specially formulated for women who are pregnant or planning to conceive can be taken. These contain low doses of vitamins and minerals and may contain omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA.

You should avoid:

Vitamin A

Too much Vitamin A may be harmful to the unborn baby. You should avoid eating foods rich in Vitamin A such as liver and paté. You should also avoid taking supplements containing Vitamin A or fish liver oils

Alcohol

It is probably best to avoid alcohol when you are trying to become pregnant.

Smoking

If you smoke, stop now before you become pregnant. It is also important to avoid passive smoking.

1 Food Standards Agency. Trying for a baby. Available at: http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/agesandstages/pregnancy/trybaby, (accessed 12.02.07).
2 Williamson, C. (2006) Nutrition in pregnancy: latest guidelines and advice. Primary Health Care. 16 (7): 23-28.

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