The nutrition status of both parents before falling pregnant plays a crucial role in promoting a healthy conception. Then, once pregnant, maternal nutrition continues to have a significant impact on the future health of your baby, throughout their entire first 1,000 days of life. That means, whatever mum and dad eat during these critical windows will impact your future child’s long-term health and gene expression – so it’s vital to optimise your nutrition choices during this time. Think of it as a gift to your future baby!
So how does the nutrition status of both parents prior to conception help give your baby the best chance at a happy and healthy life long into the future?
It can prevent your baby’s risk of health complications
Optimising nutrition allows you to take control of the health of both parents, and ensure you’re meeting specific nutrient requirements which will support the conception of a healthy baby. When you’re trying for a baby, some nutrients are more important than ever and are required in greater amounts than you’re likely getting from your existing diet.
For example, folate or folic acid. If a mother isn’t getting adequate folic acid from her diet or supplementation at the time of conception, her child is at greater risk of developing neural tube defects such as spina bifida. By the time most women realise they’re pregnant, the opportunity to provide enough folic acid to the foetus has often already passed, meaning if their preconception nutrition wasn’t already optimised, their baby’s health is at risk.
Similarly, parental nutrition status before conception can influence whether your baby will develop allergies or associated conditions like eczema and asthma. When both mum and dad eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet prior to conception, this supports the development of your future baby’s immune system and reduces their risk of suffering from these conditions throughout their life. Understanding which allergens to introduce before and during pregnancy, and which supplements can help reduce the risk of these conditions in your child is a critical part of preconception nutrition.
Optimising your nutrition choices in advance of trying for a baby empowers you to take these risks into your own hands and mitigate as many health concerns as possible for your unborn baby!
It gives your child the best chance of being a healthy weight at birth and beyond
Studies have shown a mother’s weight when she falls pregnant has a significant impact on her baby’s weight and metabolic health later in life. Mothers who were considered overweight at conception pass on a greater risk of obesity to their child, which influences the child’s weight management and ability to be of a healthy body composition throughout their life.
When both parents are within a healthy BMI range prior to conception, their child is much more likely to be of healthy birth weight, also reducing any risk of birth complications.
Research shows that, when a mother doesn’t optimise her pre-conception diet, or consumes inadequate nutrients of concern, her child is at greater risk of developing metabolic diseases and becoming obese later on.
Whereas when both parents live a healthy, balanced lifestyle, make good dietary choices and ensure they’re consistently obtaining adequate nutrition, this risk is significantly lower.
So how do you optimise your diet to give yourself the best chances of a healthy conception and your baby the best chance of a healthy life?
Not only is eating enough crucial to support reproductive function, hormone production, and ovulation, but it’s also essential to ensure your body is able to support the implantation and growth of a healthy foetus once conception occurs.
If you’re not getting enough energy each day, you’re putting your body at risk of nutritional deficiencies and therefore risking your unborn child’s health too. It links back to our discussion on increasing the baby’s risk of health complications like spina bifida – if you’re not nourishing your own body optimally, then you’re also not creating an environment in which a baby can thrive. This is important for both parents to prioritise, in order to ensure mum and dad’s reproductive health are supported, hormones are balanced, and the health of both egg and sperm are optimised.
Similarly, when you’re not getting enough energy consistently day-to-day, chances are this will interfere with regular menstrual cycles and ovulation in females (and sperm health in males), potentially compromising fertility and your chances of conceiving. In order for your body to feel “safe” enough to support the conception of a baby, you need to be consuming adequate fuel and nutrients to support optimal functioning.
Choose complex (low glycemic) carbohydrates!
Research demonstrates that consuming enough whole grains and fibre is beneficial for fertility and healthy conception. In particular, carbohydrate sources with a low GI and high-fibre nutrient profile, including quinoa, oats, beans, pulses and wholegrain bread or pasta, should be prioritised as part of your preconception nutrition.
However, other forms of carbohydrates are less optimal to include in your preconception diet. Things like sugar-sweetened drinks, and copious amounts of added- or refined-sugar foods may have a negative impact on your body and health, and therefore the health of your future baby.
So wherever possible, opt for complex carbohydrates rich in fibre, and limit your intake of the sugary stuff!
Pick your proteins
Interestingly, despite the current popularity of high-protein diets in society, you should avoid excessively high protein intakes prior to conception, as this can have a negative impact on fertility and your chances of healthy conception.
We also know the type of protein you opt for plays a part in healthy conception. Research shows choosing plant-based protein sources, including lentils, beans, nuts and seeds, in place of animal proteins can support fertility and conception. So Meatless Monday (and perhaps a few other plant-based days per week if you’re game) can be highly beneficial for healthy conception.
Fats as fuel
Healthy fats play such a vital role in fertility and healthy conception. Long gone are the days when fats were feared – now we recognise how crucial they are for reproductive function and allowing you to support a thriving baby before and during pregnancy! Healthy fats are the building blocks for facilitating healthy, balanced hormone production – including reproductive hormones such as progesterone and oestrogen. These hormones are essential for anyone trying to conceive, and looking to optimise the health of their future baby, as they allow healthy conception, growth and development of the foetus into a flourishing baby later on.
Make sure you’re including plenty of oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and other healthy fats in your preconception diet.
Soy isn’t scary
While there have been mixed opinions on whether soy has a positive or negative effect on fertility and conception, the most recent research demonstrates it can play a positive role in optimising your preconception nutrition and health status. Including soy-rich foods in your diet daily, like tofu, tempeh, edamame and miso, may be of benefit for women trying to conceive, or undergoing fertility treatment.
Supplements can be saviours
While many people think you only need to worry about prenatal supplements after you fall pregnant, in reality, it’s best to start taking supplements months prior to this to give yourself the best chance of a healthy conception. Work with a dietitian or health professional to find a supplement that’s right for you and your individual needs. After all, not all prenatal supplements are created equal, or contain all the nutrients you should be prioritising! You should definitely be looking for a preconception supplement containing folate (or folic acid), vitamin D, and iodine, though other nutrients like iron, choline, B vitamins, omega-3 (or fish oil), calcium, zinc, selenium and vitamins C and E can also be highly beneficial. As always, consult your dietitian before starting any new supplement, and where possible use whole foods to meet your nutrient needs.
Again and again, research has found the Mediterranean diet is the best choice for supporting fertility and health conception. This means including plenty of wholegrains, healthy fats, fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, oily fish, legumes and extra virgin olive oil in your diet, and reducing your intake of meat, alcohol and sugary food and drinks.
There you have it, tried and tested ways to optimise your chances of conceiving a healthy and happy baby, and supporting your unborn child’s health long into the future! Remember, your nutrition and lifestyle choices prior to conception are just as important (if not more so!) than those you make during pregnancy – for both mum and dad. So it’s time to take it seriously, and make wise choices with your future baby in mind!
And the job isn’t done once you’ve conceived a baby! Epigenetics is where modifications to DNA alter the expression of genes, turning them “on” or “off”. A mother’s diet during pregnancy can have a lifelong impact on the epigenetics of her child, further influencing the baby’s susceptibility to diseases, allergies and other health conditions later in life. So maternal nutrition during and after pregnancy is also an important factor to consider in optimising your baby’s health!