Healthy eating for pregnancy and conception

If you are trying to get pregnant, eating healthily and being the correct weight is important. If you're very underweight, it can be more difficult to conceive whereas being very overweight may also cause problems. Being overweight and pregnant also increases the risk of complications during pregnancy, birth and in the few days after the birth.

The ideal weight range is usually calculated using the body mass index (BMI) and a BMI of between18.5 to 25 is a healthy weight for most mums and associated with relatively low risks. If you are a woman with a BMI over 30, even a small weight loss can greatly increase your ability to conceive and have a healthy pregnancy.

So, before becoming pregnant, it is good practice to either lose or gain weight in a sensible way. Crash diets are not good for your health, and may mean you aren’t getting enough important nutrients.  A healthy diet both before and during pregnancy includes regular meals that contain plenty of starchy carbohydrates such as bread, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals, and potatoes. Aim to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables - at least five portions a day – as well as low or reduced fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, fromage frais and pasteurised cheeses. Go for lean sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs (well-cooked), beans and pulses and avoid fat-rich and sugary foods whenever possible. Drink at least eight medium glasses of fluid each day and keep your alcohol intake to virtually zero. Remember – you don’t normally need to eat larger quantities of food or ‘eat for two’!

Will I need to eat more during pregnancy?

Most of the extra calories needed in pregnancy are required in the last three months - around 300 kcals extra each day. Most people eat more than enough protein so there's no need to specifically increase your protein intake in pregnancy. However, it is very important to eat more fibre in pregnancy to help avoid the common problems of constipation and piles (haemorrhoids). Do this by eating fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread and cereals, brown rice, wholemeal pasta and pulses. Remember to drink more fluids too since increasing fibre intake without enough liquid can make constipation worse.

Importance of folic acid

Mums who don’t have enough folic acid before becoming pregnant, or in early pregnancy are at increased risk of having a baby with problems such as spina bifida. You can boost your folic acid intake by choosing foods such as green leafy vegetables, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals and wholemeal and wholegrain breads and rolls. Folic acid is often lost from food during cooking, so steam vegetables or cook in only a little water for a short time to retain as much as possible.

Other vitamins and minerals

Pregnant women should also try to maintain a good iron intake from their diet. Other important vitamins and minerals to eat during pregnancy include;

Vitamin C; vitamin C-rich foods help the body use iron effectively and good sources of this include citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit and lemons, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables. A drink of fruit or vegetable juice also counts.

Vitamin D; this is essential for forming and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. To ensure that you get enough during pregnancy, eat fortified margarines and reduced-fat spreads, fortified breakfast cereals, oily fish and meat. Milk and eggs also contain a small amount, and the body makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.

Calcium; calcium requirements double during pregnancy, and are especially high in the last two to three months when calcium is being laid down in your baby's bones. You should get enough from your diet if you are eating dairy foods such as cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais, and drinking milk.

What foods to avoid

In pregnancy, there are also foods to avoid since they can increase the risk of developing food poisoning. These include soft cheeses such as camembert, brie and others with a soft rind. Avoid blue-veined cheeses such as stilton too since all of these cheeses can contain listeria, a type of bacteria which can be harmful to your unborn baby. This risk is not present in hard cheeses such as cheddar, or in cottage cheese, processed cheese or cheese spread. Avoid pâté too as this can also contain listeria. Avoid eating raw or partially cooked eggs to reduce the risk of salmonella, and don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or fish. Aim to avoid raw shellfish too when you're pregnant as this can sometimes contain bacteria and viruses that may cause food poisoning.