Diet, fertility and planning a pregnancy

If you’re planning to get pregnant, eating a healthy, balanced diet will help you stay well throughout pregnancy and be good for your baby’s health.

Nutrition is about eating food that gives your body what it needs to stay healthy and work properly. The main nutrients your body needs are proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.

Nutrition and fertility

What you eat can affect your chances of getting pregnant, but the full picture is not very clear-cut because it is hard to separate diet from other factors.  What we do know is that the best foods for getting pregnant are the same as those for general well-being: whole grains, healthy fats and proteins.

The best advice is to:

  • choose wholegrain high fibre foods (such as bread, with seeds, brown rice and pasta)  instead of white processed foods (white bread, rice and pasta
  • eat more fruit and vegetables, including lentils and beans
  • avoid saturated ‘bad’ fats, such as fried foods, pastry, biscuits, pies and cakes.  
  • eat more unsaturated ‘good’ fats, such as avocados, nuts, oily fish and seeds
  • avoid sugary food and drink, such as sweets, biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks.

Reaching the ideal BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 and staying active  also helps with fertility.

If you have no periods or your periods come only occasionally you may not be ovulating (releasing an egg from your ovary). This is a cause of infertility. Having a portion of full-fat dairy every day (such as milk or yoghurt) has been shown to help with this. It may linked to the higher oestrogen levels in full fat dairy foods compared to low-fat.

Men, nutrition and fertility

Men can also improve the chances of a pregnancy with diet because sperm quality is affected by diet. The foods that have a good effect on fertility are like those that help with women’s fertility.

  • Diets high in processed meat (such as bacon and sausages), alcohol, caffeine, red meat, saturated fats are linked to low quality sperm.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and fish are linked to better sperm quality.
  • Eating a portion of walnuts a day was shown to help with sperm motility (ability to swim).

Find out more about men's fertility

Nutrition and pregnancy

Your diet before pregnancy will affect your baby’s development in the womb and their health in the future. If your diet has a lot of saturated fat and sugar before and during pregnancy, your children will be more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and weight gain themselves later on in life.

Making changes now can also prevent pregnancy problems. A diet that leads to a high BMI in pregnancy has a higher risk of pregnancy problems.

Do I need pre-conception supplements?

If you are trying to get pregnant eating a healthy, varied diet will help you to get most of the vitamins and minerals you need.

There are many branded pre-pregnancy vitamins available in pharmacies and supermarkets. These are not harmful but folic acid is the only extra supplement everyone needs if you’re trying to get pregnant. It is often cheaper to buy this separately.

If you are vegan, talk to your doctor to make sure that you are getting enough nutrients for a healthy pregnancy.

Folic acid

All women need to take folic acid tablets before getting pregnant to build up the level of folic acid in their body to give maximum protection to the baby against neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It is almost impossible to get enough folic acid through your diet to give the most protection.

Most women should take 400mcg of folic acid every day for two months before trying for a baby and continue until you are 12 weeks pregnant.

You will need a higher dose of folic acid tablets. If you have diabetes or epilepsy, or if you are a smoker or heavy drinker.

Find out more about folic acid and planning to have a baby.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D in pregnancy is important for the development of strong bones. Some women are at greater risk of vitamin D deficiency and could also benefit from a vitamin D supplement of 10mcg a day before and during pregnancy. These include women:

  • of South Asian, African, Caribbean or Middle Eastern family origin
  • who get less sun on their skin (for example spend less time outside or cover up most of the body when outside)
  • who eat a diet low in vitamin D, such as vegan diets
  • with a BMI above 30

If you’re planning to have a baby you are advised not to take any herbal or homeopathic products.

Do not take any supplements containing vitamin A, such as liver or fish oil. High doses of vitamin A can affect the development of the baby in the womb.

Healthy Start

Healthy Start is a UK-wide scheme that provides free vitamins, including folic acid. You also get free weekly vouchers for milk, plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables and infant formula milk.

You qualify if you are on benefits and:

  • you are at least 10 weeks pregnant
  • have children under the age of four

All pregnant women under the age of 18 qualify – whether or not they are on benefits.

To find out more and apply visit Healthy Start or call 0345 607 6823

Caffeine

Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, some soft drinks and energy drinks. Having more than 200mg of caffeine a day (two mugs of instant coffee a day or one mug of filter coffee) is harmful to a baby in the womb so it is safer to avoid caffeine as soon as you stop contraception.

Too much caffeine can also increase your risk of miscarriage. This applies to both women and men.

200mg is two mugs of instant coffee a day or one mug of filter coffee.

You can reduce your caffeine intake by:

  • drinking decaf tea and coffee
  • having other drinks, such as water or fruit juice (just be wary of your sugar intake)
  • avoiding energy drinks, which contain very high amounts of caffeine
  • avoiding sports drinks with caffeine

Chocolate contains caffeine too, so include this when you work out your daily allowance using our caffeine calculator.

Anaemia (low iron in the blood) and planning for pregnancy

Anaemia is a blood condition due to lack of iron. It can lead to:

  • tiredness and lack of energy
  • shortness of breath
  • noticeable heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • pale skin.

If you have anaemia it needs treatment before you get pregnant. Speak to your GP if you think you have symptoms of anaemia. A blood test will show if you are anaemic. 

Iron deficiency anaemia is treated with iron supplement tablets. You may be advised to eat more food with lots of iron in it, such as:

  • green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and kale
  • cereals and bread with extra iron in them (fortified)
  • meat
  • Pulses (beans, peas and lentils)

What is a healthy diet for pregnancy?

A healthy diet for pregnancy is the same as a healthy diet for life.

  • Base meals on starchy food (such as bread, rice, pasta, potatoes), choosing wholegrain options where possible
  • Eat foods with lots of fibre, such as fruit, vegetables, oats, beans, peas, lentils.
  • Eat at least 5 portions of different fruits and vegetables each day (3 vegetable if possible)
  • Don’t over-eat. For the first two trimesters of pregnancy there is no need to eat more than the normal 2,000 calories recommended for women. You can use the NHS Choices calorie checker to count your daily calories.
  • Try not to skip breakfast, choosing sugar-free cereals if you have cereal.
  • Be mindful of portion sizes of meals and snacks and how often you eat.
  • Avoid saturated ‘bad’ fats, such as fried foods, pastry, biscuits, pies and cakes. 
  • Eat more unsaturated ‘good’ fats, such as avocados, nuts, oily fish and seeds.
  • Avoid sugary food and drink, such as sweets, biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks.

Try to avoid too much ready-prepared food too. The chemical preservatives, colourings, and flavourings added to these can affect the nutrients in the food.

The NHS eatwell guide has more information on how to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

A dietitian can help if you have a condition that requires specific diets or nutritional requirements, such as diabetes. Ask your GP if you are unsure.

Dental care

A poor diet can also damage your teeth. You can keep your teeth clean and healthy by:

  • brushing your teeth twice a day
  • flossing
  • having regular dental check-ups
  • having dental treatments when needed.

Some dental check ups involve having an X-ray. Even though most dental X-rays don’t affect the stomach or pelvic area, your dentist will usually want to wait until you’ve had the baby.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to visit the dentist before you get pregnant, just in case you need any more treatment.

Are you ready to conceive? Use our tool to find out.

Sources

1. Sue Macdonald and Gail Johnson Mayes’ Midwifery (Edinburgh: Baillir̈e Tindall Elsevier, 2017)

2. Fontana, R & Della Torre, S The Deep Correlation between Energy Metabolism and Reproduction: A View on the Effects of Nutrition for Women Fertility. Nutrients 2016 Feb 11;8(2):87. doi: 10.3390/nu8020087. 

3. Gaskins, AJ & Chavarro, JE Diet and fertility: a review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2018 Apr;218(4):379-389. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2017.08.010. Epub 2017 Aug 24. 

4. Karayiannis, D et al Association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and semen quality parameters in male partners of couples attempting fertility. Human Reproduction Jan;32(1):215-222. Epub 2016 Nov 14. 

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6. Ricci, E et al. Coffee and caffeine intake and male infertility: a systematic review. Nutrition journal 2017 Jun 24;16(1):37. doi: 10.1186/s12937-017-0257-2. 

7. Sue Macdonald and Gail Johnson Mayes’ Midwifery (Edinburgh: Baillir̈e Tindall Elsevier, 2017), p 268

8. Robbins, WA Walnuts improve semen quality in men consuming a Western-style diet: randomized control dietary intervention trial. Biology of reproduction Oct 25;87(4):101. doi: 10.1095/biolreprod.112.101634. Print 2012 Oct. 

9. NICE Guidelines (2008) Maternal and child nutrition National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

10. Kereliuk SM et al, Maternal Macronutrient Consumption and the Developmental Origins of Metabolic Disease in the Offspring in International journal of molecular sciences International Journal of molecular sciences 2017 Jul 6;18(7). pii: E1451. doi: 10.3390/ijms18071451.

11. Howie, GJ et al. Maternal nutritional history predicts obesity in adult offspring independent of postnatal diet. The Journal of Physiology 2009 Feb 15;587(Pt 4):905-15. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2008.163477. Epub 2008 Dec 22. 

12. Rooney K & Ozanne SE, Maternal over-nutrition and offspring obesity predisposition: targets for preventative interventions, International Journal of Obesity. 2011 Jul;35(7):883-90. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2011.96

13. Reynolds, CM et al, Early Life, Nutrition and Energy Balance Disorders in Offspring in Later Life. Nutrients 2015 Sep 21;7(9):8090-111. doi: 10.3390/nu7095384

14. NHS Choices (accessed 01/04/2018) Gestational diabetes Page last reviewed: 05/08/2016 
Next review due: 05/08/2019.  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gestational-diabetes/

15. Clinical Knowledge Summaries (Aug 2017) Pre-conception advice and management https://cks.nice.org.uk/pre-conception-advice-and-management

16. Clinical Knowledge Summaries (September 2016) Antenatal care – uncomplicated pregnancy https://cks.nice.org.uk/antenatal-care-uncomplicated-pregnancy

17. Buck Louis, GM, et al. Lifestyle and pregnancy loss in a contemporary cohort of women recruited before conception: The LIFE Study. Fertility and Sterility.  In press.  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.03.009

18. NHS Choices (accessed 01/04/2018) Iron deficiency anaemia Page last reviewed: 12/01/2018 
Next review due: 12/01/2021.  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/ 

19. NHS Choices (2015) Can I have an X-ray if I’m pregnant? Page last reviewed: 13/11/2015 
Next review due: 30/09/2018 https://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/2294.aspx

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Last reviewed on June 5th, 2018. Next review date June 5th, 2021.

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