Many women aim to improve their diet once they discover they are pregnant, but it is just as important that women are getting all the nutrients they need before they conceive.
However, according to the British Nutrition Foundation, few women follow the recommendations for nutrition and lifestyle before they conceive, and many may be lacking essential nutrients in their diet.
Examples of important nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy include protein, which is essential for health and to build extra tissue during pregnancy as well as laying down the foundations for baby's developing organs; essential fatty acids, which help to maintain mum's heart health and golden glow and also play an important role in baby's brain and eye development; calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for the mum's bone health as well the baby's. The fact that all pregnant and lactating women should be taking vitamin D supplements is not widely known.
Also, with around 3.5 million UK couples affected by infertility every year, the BNF believes that many people could benefit from knowing that good nutrition may be important for fertility. For example, zinc and selenium, found in meat, fish, shellfish and bread, are particularly important for men at this stage as they help to develop and protect the sperm cells. Being a healthy weight also is very important for fertility, both for men and for women. In men, obesity may affect sperm quality and reproductive hormones, while in women it may contribute to irregularities in ovulation and menstruation and may increase pregnancy-related risks.
Bones and Teeth in Pregnancy
Most of a newborn baby's skeleton is formed during the last 3 months of pregnancy and it contains between 20-30g of calcium. In addition, baby's teeth are actually formed while in the womb. The body naturally adapts to use calcium more efficiently during pregnancy by absorbing more from food and losing less in urine. However, if calcium intakes are insufficient, mums risk losing calcium from their own bones and teeth to provide for their growing baby, so it is especially important to get enough calcium when pregnant. Extra vitamin D is needed during pregnancy and when breastfeeding to ensure that both mum and baby are absorbing all the calcium their bones need. Many pregnant women are not aware that they should be taking vitamin D supplements of 10 micrograms each day throughout pregnancy. This is particularly important considering that there are many women in the UK with low vitamin D status. A lack of vitamin D during pregnancy can affect a child's bone health long-term and may also have long term detrimental affects for mums whose own skeleton acts as a calcium reserve during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Heart and Brain
Essential omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable and seed oils (e.g. rape seed oil, sunflower seed oil) and spreads made from these, help to keep the heart healthy. For unborn babies, essential fatty acids perform an additional role, forming a major component of membranes in brain cells, the coating of nerve cells and of the retina of the eye, thus laying the building blocks for your baby's nervous system and eyes to develop. Nature has a clever way of taking essential nutrients from the stores in a mother's body to ensure that the baby's growth isn't impaired. But, in order to maintain these stores, mums need to make sure they are getting enough from their diet. In particular, a lack of omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel) has been associated with giving birth early and having a baby with a low birth weight.
Exercise and Pregnancy
Although many pregnant women may stop exercising when the become pregnant, an exercise regime, tailored for the stage of pregnancy, can be really beneficial for mum. It can help to keep the heart pumping and lungs healthy, prevent excess weight gain, reduce muscle pain and cramps, reduce swelling in the legs and feet; can help to keep mood swings in check; reduce risk of high blood pressure and gestational diabetes and may even help mums to have a shorter and easier labour! This, in turn, can benefit the unborn baby by reducing the risk of complications during birth.