Becoming healthy before becoming pregnant: Part II

Agnesian Women's Health

Written by: Steven Sheppard, DO

Pre-conception nutrition is a vital part of preparing for pregnancy. Factors such as your weight compared with your height and what you eat can play an important role in your health during pregnancy and the health of your developing fetus.

The following nutrients should be included in a woman's pre-conception diet and continued into pregnancy:

Folic acid.  All women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid each day. Folic acid is a nutrient found in some green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and some vitamin supplements. It can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (called neural tube defects). The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida, in which the vertebrae do not fuse together properly, causing the spinal cord to be exposed. This can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and, sometimes, intellectual disability.

Folic acid is most beneficial during the first 28 days after conception, when most neural tube defects occur. Unfortunately, many women do not realize they are pregnant before 28 days. Therefore, folic acid intake should begin before conception and continue through pregnancy. Your health care provider will recommend the right amount of folic acid to meet your needs.

Most health care providers will prescribe a prenatal supplement before conception, or shortly afterward, to ensure all of the woman's nutritional needs are met. However, a prenatal supplement does not replace a healthy diet.

Iron.  Many women have low iron stores as a result of monthly menstruation and diets low in iron. Building iron stores helps prepare a mother's body for the needs of the fetus during pregnancy. Good sources of iron include the following:

  • Meats such as beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats.
  • Poultry such as chicken, duck, and turkey (especially dark meat).
  • Fish and shellfish including sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, and oysters. Check with your health care provider before consuming other types of fish as some may contain high levels of mercury.
  • Leafy greens of the cabbage family such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards.
  • Legumes such as lima beans and green peas, dry beans and peas such as pinto beans and black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans.
  • Whole-grain breads and iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals.
Calcium. Preparing for pregnancy includes building healthy bones. If there is not enough calcium in the pregnancy diet, the fetus may draw calcium from the mother's bones, which can put women at risk for osteoporosis later in life. The recommended calcium intake for women is 1,000 milligrams. Three servings of milk or other dairy products each day equals about 1,000 milligrams of calcium.

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