While most people are aware of the importance of adequate nutrition, and optimising your intake of specific nutrients during pregnancy, did you know that your nutrition and lifestyle choices before conceiving have a significant long-term effect on the health of both your future baby and yourself?
The 3-12 months prior to conception is a critical time to optimise your health and nutrition. A woman’s egg cells take three months to develop and mature, meaning what you’re eating three months before conceiving has an impact on your future bub, while a sperm cycle for males lasts around 64 days. Given that around half of pregnancies are unplanned, and even more of the time a woman won’t realise she’s pregnant until around the 5- or 6-week mark, it’s clear you need to be considering your nutrition and lifestyle well before you begin your conception journey. This is where a fertility dietitian (like myself!) comes in…
There are so many reasons why you need to include a dietitian in your journey to conceiving, in order to support your fertility and chances of falling pregnant and optimise your future baby’s health, as well as your own. Let’s dive into some of the key reasons you should be working with a dietitian like myself if you’re even thinking about trying to conceive.
Your baby’s future health outcomes are largely reliant on maternal (and paternal) nutrition.
Research has shown that, in instances where a mother is eating a nutrient-poor diet during conception and pregnancy, this can increase the risk of the child developing metabolic diseases and obesity in the future.
Similarly, alcohol consumption by both the mother and father can affect the unborn baby’s DNA and birth weight, leading to poorer birth outcomes and potential health complications down the track. Given what we know about the length of a regular sperm and egg cycle, it’s important to understand the implications your current diet could be having on the future health of your potential baby, in order to give your bub every chance at a healthy, happy life.
Parents who maintained a healthy weight in the year before conception were found to have children who were much more able to maintain a healthy weight range during life. Studies have found a strong link between a mother’s weight when she falls pregnant, and her baby’s weight later in life. Mothers who were considered overweight not only passed on a greater risk of obesity to their child, but were also at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes – a condition which increases the child’s chances of developing diabetes too.
Understanding the impact of your diet on your future baby is critical, and empowers you to make choices and changes to optimise your child’s health. For example, a healthy BMI has been found to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, birth complications, and other health risks. It’s increasingly clear that prioritising the health and nutrition of both parents in the year prior to conception has enormous benefits for your baby’s future health.
The development of conditions like allergies and eczema in your unborn baby are also strongly impacted by your preconception nutrition status. Up to 10% of infants experience food allergies including cow’s milk, eggs, nuts, soy, wheat and shellfish, and 1 in 5 suffer from eczema. Yet preconception nutrition can reduce this risk, by enhancing the development of your baby’s immune system. When you work with a dietitian like myself before conception, you’ll create a supplementation strategy tailored to your personal needs to prevent the development of allergies, asthma and eczema in your unborn baby, emphasising nutrients like fish oil, folic acid, pre- and probiotics. You’ll also plan for introducing major allergens during your pregnancy to prevent your child suffering from allergies throughout their life.
You’ll be confident you’re meeting changing nutrient needs
When you’re trying for a baby, your nutrient needs will change significantly, and will continue to do so throughout pregnancy. But one thing is for certain: waiting until you fall pregnant to address these nutrient requirements is leaving it too late.
If you wait until you’ve conceived a baby, again noting it often takes weeks to determine if you’re pregnant, you’ve put your unborn baby at significant risk.
Spina bifida is a condition caused by a lack of folate before conception, and during the very early stages of pregnancy. A neural tube defect is where your baby’s spine and spinal cord do not properly develop, leaving gaps in the spine. Given the neural tube begins to form at the start of pregnancy, and closes around 4 weeks after conceiving, the first 4 weeks of pregnancy (and beforehand!) are a vital time for ensuring you are meeting increased folate requirements to prevent this condition occurring in your unborn baby.
If you have not planned ahead, and you do not realise early on that you are pregnant, this is a huge risk factor for your baby. Whereas, seeking the help of a dietitian to optimise your preconception nutrition will mitigate this risk, and ensure your baby’s health by prioritising folate and other key nutrients to allow you to meet the changing needs associated with pregnancy and conception.
Your requirements for other nutrients like iodine, zinc, vitamin D and iron also change before and during pregnancy, so it’s important to stay on top of all the dietary changes you need to make to optimise the health of both you and your unborn baby!
You’ll understand how to optimise nutrition and improve your chances of conceiving
The nutrition status of both parents has a huge effect on your fertility and your ability to conceive a baby. Until you work with an experienced dietitian, you’ll be hard-pressed to fill in nutrient deficiencies and prioritise nutrients which will support your chances of falling pregnant on your own.
Your diet impacts a mother’s ovulation and hormonal balance, and also regulates the menstrual cycle, meaning you’ve got a better chance of falling pregnant when you’re taking care of your nutrition. If you’re eating well, getting enough energy and nutrients, and supporting a consistent, regular and healthy cycle and hormone production, you’re much more likely to conceive, and you’re better able to identify when you’re ovulating (and therefore when you’re most fertile!). Adequate nutrition can also help support the implantation of an embryo, improving the thickening of your endometrial lining to enhance your chance of a successful pregnancy.
Similarly, good nutrition can boost sperm count, and improve sperm health and motility, as well as egg quality. This further improves your baby’s future health outcomes, and your chances of getting pregnant.
When you work with a dietitian prior to conceiving, you’ll understand the importance of incorporating plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, protein and healthy fats into your diet each day, to support your fertility and chances of falling pregnant. We’ll work through dietary strategies to give you the best chance of conceiving a healthy baby, and you’ll better understand your cycle too!
You’ll be able to separate fact from fiction
With increasing research around what you can and can’t eat during (and prior to) conception, it’s often overwhelming trying to understand what foods and drinks to avoid if you’re trying for a baby. After all, with most women taking around 6 weeks to recognise they’re pregnant as we mentioned, it’s important to consider your dietary choices as soon as you start trying to conceive. Knowing what foods to avoid (things like soft cheeses, undercooked eggs, deli meats) is critical. And so is understanding the safe amount of foods or drinks you can consume without causing any potential harm to yourself or your baby. When you’re pregnant, you may be able to include some things in your diet, yet your “safe” level may decrease significantly – even when it comes to things like caffeine!
Working with a dietitian removes the guesswork and the risk, and allows you to feel secure, confident and in control of your diet prior to conception, and during pregnancy. It removes the stress and fear, and allows your journey to conception to be the exciting, joyful time it should be!
You’ll understand how to give yourself the best chance of conceiving when working with health conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis
With around 1 in 10 Australian women experiencing PCOS and approximately 11% of Australian females suffering with endometriosis at some point in their lives, these conditions can have a large impact on fertility and your chances of successfully conceiving a baby if unmanaged. However, working with a dietitian to understand your unique nutrient and dietary needs prior to conceiving can allow many women struggling with these conditions to still fall pregnant with a healthy baby.
Dietary intervention and lifestyle strategies play a crucial role in allowing you to conceive naturally if you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, endometriosis, or any other health condition which may affect your fertility. It’s important to work with a dietitian, not just after conception, but well beforehand, to ensure your baby isn’t affected, and to enhance your fertility by making your body the healthiest environment it can be in which your baby can grow, develop and thrive.
You’ll recognise the importance of paternal nutrition, which is often overlooked
Naturally, more emphasis is placed on the diet and nutrition status of the mother when trying to conceive, given the baby develops in her womb. However, paternal nutrition plays a key role in your baby’s health too – so it’s important to work with a dietitian to understand how the father can also optimise his diet, food choices and lifestyle to give your baby the best chance of health into the future.
Dad’s nutrition status can directly impact your baby’s growth, metabolism, and risk of developing various diseases in the future, so it’s important to work with a dietitian to optimise his nutrition in the months prior to conception.
You’ll ensure you develop a positive relationship with food, so you can pass on healthy habits and attitudes to your child later on.
Working with a dietitian before conceiving can help ensure you’ve got a healthy relationship with food, and are adequately fuelling your body to support optimal health. If parents have a good relationship with food, and are able to include all foods without restriction in their diets, your child is much more likely to do the same as they grow up.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to identify a strained or negative relationship or habits around food, so it’s important to consult your dietitian for help in this area. Particularly during conception and pregnancy, mothers who under-eat, over-exercise or diet during pregnancy often put their unborn child at risk of overeating in the future, as they become conditioned to eat excessively to compensate for the interference of their natural hunger signals so early on in life.
It’s so important for parents to ensure you’re eating adequately from all different food groups, and you have a positive outlook on food, as you will act as a role model for your child’s relationship with food in the future. Working on this prior to conception gives you the best chance at developing a positive attitude towards food, in order to allow your unborn baby to do the same. Not only does this affect their general health and happiness, it also plays a crucial role in their emotional and mental wellbeing for the entire duration of their lives, so it’s definitely worth your time and consideration! A dietitian is well-equipped to help you heal your own relationship with food, and unlearn any lingering negative or damaging patterns and habits you may be exemplifying.