When it comes to getting pregnant, the saying “you are what you eat” rings true. What you eat can affect everything from your blood cells to your hormones. However, it can take up to three months for any dietary changes to take place, but if you’re already trying to conceive don’t worry — it’s never too late to make some changes. Read on for tips on getting your diet into baby-making shape.
Drink alcohol sparingly
An occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer probably won’t hurt your odds of conceiving. Just make sure you aren’t pregnant when you drink alcohol. Alcohol can harm a developing fetus. That means the time to avoid alchohol is between ovulation and menstruation, and the best time to have a worry-free drink is the day you get your period.
That said, if you have irregular cycles (which can make it harder to know when you’re ovulating) or generally have trouble conceiving, play it safe and avoid alcohol altogether. Although studies of alcohol’s effects on fertility are inconclusive, some do show a slight link between drinking and difficulty conceiving. When Danish researchers looked at 430 couples trying to have their first child, they found that women’s ability to get pregnant decreased as more alcohol was consumed. Women who had fewer than five drinks a week were twice as likely to get pregnant as those drinking ten drinks a week.
Rethink refined carbohydrates
Lots of refined carbohydrates, like white bread, pasta, and white rice, won’t directly lower your likelihood of getting pregnant but they will shortchange your body.
The refining process strips 17 key nutrients from grains. Among those lost are several that boost fertility, such as antioxidants, B vitamins, and iron. A woman trying to conceive should pack her diet with as many nutrient-rich foods as possible and whole grains are a great place to start.
You should aim for about 6 ounces of whole grains a day. That’s roughly the equivalent of a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a couple of slices of whole wheat sandwich bread at lunch, and a serving of whole wheat pasta for dinner.
If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the most common cause of infertility in women, pay extra attention to whole grains. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that can get worse when insulin levels in the bloodstream surge. The main culprits behind big insulin spikes are refined carbohydrates, insulin flows into the blood, feeds back to the ovaries, and can lead to irregular ovulation.
Eat your greens, and reds, and yellows
Fruits and vegetables not only deliver a wealth of vitamins and minerals, they also overflow with free-radical-busting micronutrients, like phytochemicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are harmful molecules that sneak into the body on the heels of everything from sunlight to car exhaust and can damage the ova, sperm, and reproductive organs.
Buy brightly colored fruits and vegetables, like blueberries, red peppers, and kale. The more vivid the hue, the more nutrient-packed the produce. Restock your fruit bowl and produce bin weekly, and aim for eating about 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of veggies a day.
The research on whether caffeine can affect fertility is mixed. Experts generally agree that low to moderate caffeine consumption (less than 300 mgs a day or about two 8-ounce mugs of coffee) won’t get in the way of getting pregnant. But you might want to cut out caffeine altogether if you’re having difficulty conceiving or undergoing in vitro fertilization, caffeine restricts blood vessels, slowing blood flow to the uterus and potentially making it harder for an egg to grab hold.
Eliminating all caffeine at once can cause nasty headaches. So if you decide to kick your caffeine habit completely, you might want to do so gradually. Every day, replace a little more of the caffeinated brew in your cup with decaf, until you’ve weaned yourself. Once you are used to life with little or no caffeine, you may find steamed milk with a shot of flavored syrup a nice coffee substitute — and the calcium will do your body good.
Be Picky about fish
If reports of high mercury levels have you steering clear of seafood, it’s time to reconsider. Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids for optimal fertility, and fish is the best source. Even so, the news about mercury contamination in fish can be scary. Mercury is toxic to a developing fetus and can linger in a woman’s bloodstream for more than a year.
The good news is that not all fish contain the same amount of mercury. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that women trying to conceive can safely eat up to 12 ounces a week of low-mercury fish, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, or catfish. The FDA advises avoiding canned white tuna as well as fresh or frozen swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, tuna steaks, shark, orange roughy, Spanish mackerel, marlin, and grouper, because they have the highest mercury levels.
If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or you just don’t like fish, try flaxseeds. Flaxseeds are the richest plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids and are easy to find in health food stores. Buy the seeds, grind them in a coffee grinder, and sprinkle them on cereal or toast or add them to a smoothie. If you’re in a rush, buy a bottle of flaxseed oil and drizzle 1 tablespoon a day over salad, popcorn, or a baked potato. (Just don’t cook with flaxseed oil; the heat destroys its beneficial nutrients.)
Pump up on iron
Fill your body’s iron reserves before you get pregnant, especially if your periods are particularly heavy, bleeding every month is a constant source of iron depletion.
Load up now; because once you’re pregnant your body has difficulty maintaining its iron stores. The fetus uses the mineral for development and gets its supply from you. Furthermore, too little iron at the start of pregnancy puts you at risk for postpartum anemia — a condition affecting 27 percent of new mothers that causes your red blood cells to fall below normal and zaps your energy level.
If you don’t eat much red meat or you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, take a multivitamin with iron. And, to be on the safe side, ask your healthcare provider to test your blood for anemia.
Beware of listeria
Listeria is a harmful bacterium found in ready-to-eat meats, soft cheeses, and unpasteurized dairy products. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get sick from eating listeria-laced food. Those trying to conceive should also be on alert because listeriosis (the infection caused by listeria) can cause a miscarriage early in the first trimester — possibly before you even know you’re pregnant.
To kill listeria, heat high-risk foods in the microwave until they’re steaming hot. To reduce bacteria growth on leftovers, set the refrigerator’s temperature at 40 degrees or below. Discard any food that’s been at room temperature for more than two hours. Foods to avoid completely: Raw sushi, refrigerated smoked seafood (like lox), soft cheese made from unpasteurized (raw) milk, and other unpasteurized dairy products.
Don’t panic over protein
Faddy diets and fertility don’t mix. Avoid any diet that excludes an entire food group or puts too much emphasis on one type of food, Instead, aim for two to four servings of up to 3 ounces of protein a day, including fish, lean meats, nuts, and legumes.
Fill voids with vitamins
Getting all the nutrients you need for fertility from food alone is difficult .It’s a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin or regular multivitamin. Although prenatal vitamins will give you the key nutrients you need, they may be more expensive and they can be harder on your stomach because they contain higher levels of nutrients than a regular multivitamin. (Some experts suggest taking your prenatal vitamin right before bedtime to help ward off an upset stomach.)
If you decide to take an over-the-counter multivitamin instead of a prenatal vitamin, be sure to follow these important guidelines:
- Make sure it doesn’t contain more than the recommended daily allowance of 770 mcg (2,565 IU) of vitamin A, unless it’s all in a form called beta-carotene. Getting too much of a certain kind of vitamin A can cause birth defects. (The kind that occurs naturally in food is safe, so you don’t have to worry about overdoing it by eating foods rich in vitamin A.)
- Look for a multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid. This B vitamin protects babies from neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. It’s especially important to get enough folic acid before you get pregnant, because your baby’s neural tube will form just three to four weeks after conception, when many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant.
- Choose a multivitamin that also delivers a healthy dose of vitamin B12. Preliminary evidence hints that B12 deficiency may also play a role in some neural tube defects. Because vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal-based foods, women who rarely eat meat or follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet should either look for a multivitamin that delivers the entire B12 recommended daily allowance (2.4 micrograms) or consider a B12 supplement
If you’re unsure what to take, ask your healthcare provider to recommend a supplement for you.