Can eating healthy before pregnancy prevent birth defects?

March 8, 2021

The foods you eat provide nutrients that are important to
help you be healthy before and during pregnancy. Nutrients are parts of food,
like vitamins and minerals that help your body stay healthy.

Before you get pregnant, it’s a good idea to have a preconception checkup. It helps your health care provider make sure you’re healthy and that your body is ready for pregnancy. Your health care provider also will talk to you about what you should eat to help you have a healthy pregnancy.

How much folic acid do you need before getting pregnant?

Folic acid is a vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. If you take folic acid before pregnancy and during early pregnancy, it can help protect your baby from birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (NTDs) and birth defects of the mouth called cleft lip and palate.

To help prevent birth defects, take a vitamin supplement
with 400 mcg of folic acid in it every day at least 1 month before pregnancy
through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you’re at high risk for having a
baby with an NTD, talk to your provider about taking extra folic acid. Your
provider may recommend you to take 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day 3 months
before you get pregnant through 12 weeks of pregnancy.

You also can get folic acid in food.
When folic acid is naturally in food, it’s called folate. Foods that are good
sources of folate are:

  • Beans, like lentils,
    pinto beans, and black beans
  • Leafy green
    vegetables, like spinach and Romaine lettuce
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Peanuts
  • Citrus fruits, like
    oranges and grapefruit
  • Berries
  • Orange juice (100%
    juice is best)

Folic acid is the manmade form of folate that is in fortified and enriched foods
and vitamin supplements. Fortified and enriched means a food has added
nutrients, like folic acid. Look for the word “fortified” or “enriched” on
labels on foods like:

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Cornmeal
  • Flour
  • Pasta
  • Some products made
    from a kind of flour called corn masa, like tortillas, tortilla chips, taco
    shells, tamales and pupusas
  • White rice

What other nutrients are important before pregnancy?

It is important to eat nutrient-dense foods that contain a
variety of vitamins and minerals to help prevent birth defects, including:

  • Choline. Choline will help your baby’s
    brain and spinal cord develop correctly. It’s recommended that women get 425
    milligrams a day before getting pregnant. Without enough choline, your baby may
    develop NTDs or cognitive issues. Sources of choline include egg yolks, lean
    red meat, fish, milk, poultry, pork, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli,
    Brussels sprouts, beans, and nuts.
  • Iodine. Iodine is a nutrient that your
    body needs during pregnancy to make thyroid hormones that help your baby’s
    bones and nerves develop. It is recommended that women get 150 micrograms of
    iodine a day before getting pregnant. Without enough iodine, your baby may have
    brain issues. Sources of iodine include table salt (with iodine added to it),
    seaweed, saltwater fish, seafood, some dairy products, and fortified cereal and
  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D will help your
    baby’s bones and teeth grow. All women, including pregnant women, need 600
    international units (IU) of vitamin D a day. Good sources are fatty fish like
    salmon and milk and cereal that has vitamin D added to it. Your body also makes
    vitamin D when your skin is in the sunlight.
  • Zinc. Zinc will help your baby grow and
    develop properly. Not enough zinc has been linked to preterm birth and a higher
    rate of infection. It is recommended that women get 8 milligrams while trying
    to conceive. Good sources of zinc include oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork,
    baked beans, fortified breakfast cereal, dark meat chicken, and pumpkin seeds.

Most of the nutrients you need should come from foods. But
taking a vitamin supplement can help you get the nutrients you need to be ready
for pregnancy. You can start taking prenatal vitamins or a vitamin supplement before
you get pregnant. Talk to your provider about what vitamin supplement is good
for you. And, ask about what foods to eat to help you have a healthy
pregnancy—and a healthy baby.