Reviewed May 2014
Diet and exercise
Diet and conception
Should I start taking folic acid before I get pregnant?
Vitamins and minerals including folic acid appear to have an enormous impact on our overall health. We currently do not know the full significance of deficiencies, but we do know that diet and nutrition have an effect on our ability to conceive and maintain a healthy pregnancy.
Folic acid supplements have been shown to dramatically cut the risk of having a baby with spina bifida or other problems affecting the baby's spine and neural tube. This is why women are advised to take a 400mcg supplement every day while they are trying to get pregnant, and for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
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I am already pregnant. Is it too late to take folic acid?
Folic acid is particularly needed in the early weeks of pregnancy because it helps close the neural tube early on in the pregnancy. During the first few weeks of pregnancy your baby will have a tube made out of cells (called the neural tube) running down his back. This tube will go on to become the spinal cord, the brain, and the spinal column. As these organs are formed, the tube will close. This process is usually complete by the end of the first trimester and this is why it is particularly important to take folic acid during this time. Women are encouraged to take 400mcg a day before they become pregnant and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Start taking the supplements daily from now until you have had your scan and you know you are beyond 12 weeks.
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Should I take a pregnancy multivitamin as well?
A multivitamin designed for conception and pregnancy will certainly do no harm, and if your diet is slightly lacking in a particular area it can help you get what you need.
Although most women eat healthy, varied diets which provide all the essentials, you may be short of certain vital nutrients. For instance, many pregnant women may lack vitamin D during winter due to the lack of sunlight; dark-skinned women are particularly susceptible. Taking a pregnancy-specific multivitamin means you can rest easy in the knowledge that you are taking the vitamins and minerals that could help your growing baby, but you will still need to eat a well-balanced diet.
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I want to try for a baby but am very overweight. Do I need to diet first?
Firstly, visit your doctor to discuss this. If you're very overweight it's a good idea to lose weight before you start trying for a baby. Now is an ideal time to get healthy to ensure you give your baby the best start in life, and it's certainly not wise to try and lose weight once you are pregnant.
Don’t go on crash diets which cut out major food groups, or which could leave you short of vital nutrients. Instead aim to make healthier choices for your food. If you crash diet now you are likely to pile the weight back on in early pregnancy.
Speak to your GP about also taking up some simple exercise to help you shift the weight, and learn about how to continue some moderate exercise during pregnancy and beyond. See our Ready to conceive page for more ideas.
Will eating bread and pasta make me fat?
Bread, pasta and potatoes will not make you fat unless you are eating them in huge quantities. A sensible amount of bread and pasta will fill you up and help prevent you from snacking. You should try to eat wholegrain bread, pasta and rice rather than white, however, as it will give you energy for longer, and is more nutritious.
What you put on bread and pasta probably has more effect on your calorie intake. Mayonnaise, butter, oil and creamy sauces are all high in saturated fats.
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I am underweight. Should I put on weight by eating more chocolate?
Being underweight can make it harder to conceive, as you may have irregular periods. It can also lead to complications in pregnancy.
Putting on weight means taking in more calories. You can put on weight by eating high fat snack foods such as chocolate, but it's not a good idea. The high sugar content will damage your teeth, chocolate has little nutritional content, and you might get into a habit that may be difficult to break once you reach your optimum weight.
Instead, try adding calories to your diet by eating more protein, such as chicken, fish and eggs, using full fat milk and dairy products, and eating foods that contain high levels of natural oils, such as olives, avocados and nuts.
Try cooking with olive oil or other vegetable oils and eating more oily fish. Gaining weight healthily is a complex subject, so it is best to consult your doctor if you are very underweight. You should also speak to your doctor if you have any eating disorders or issues with your body image and weight.
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I’m a vegetarian, what should I be doing?
If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you may find it helps to seek some extra nutritional advice both before conception and during pregnancy. You may need supplements to ensure that you are not lacking in some key nutrients, for example, vitamin B12, iron and protein.
Vitamin B12 can be a particular problem because it is commonly found in animal products such as meat and eggs, although some can be found in yeast. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause foetal abnormalities, so it is really worth taking some advice about how best to get enough of it into your diet.
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Exercise and conception
I exercise a lot. Could this reduce my chances of conceiving?
Too much exercise can make it more difficult to conceive. Some people over-exercise and become underweight. Too little body fat can disturb the production of oestrogen, which is essential for ovulation. This can mean that you continue to have periods but are in fact not releasing eggs.
If you're running long distances or going to the gym five or six times a week and doing high-impact training you may wish to look at reducing your exercise, or changing it to something more moderate. Swimming can be a great exercise for pregnancy. Aim to have a healthy BMI, rather than your peak fitness level.
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More frequently asked questions about conception
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Antenatal care: routine care for the healthy pregnant woman, clinical guideline 62, London NICE, 2008
US Department of Health and Human Services, Neural tube defects: condition information, Washington DC National Institutes of Health, 2012. Also available at: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/ntds/conditioninfo/Pages/default.aspx (accessed 13 May 2014)
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Weight management before, during and after pregnancy, public health guidance 27, London NICE, 2010
Public Health England, The Eatwell plate, London PHE, 2013. Also available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/237282/Eatwell_plate_booklet.pdf (accessed 13 May 2014)
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Exercise in pregnancy, Statement 4, London RCOG, 2006
Katz VL, Water exercise in pregnancy, Seminars in Perinatology 1996; 20(4): 285–91