Healthy eating before having a baby

Video file

Key Points

Eating nutrient-dense foods that contain a variety of vitamins and minerals can help you be healthy before and during pregnancy.

Getting to a healthy weight before becoming pregnant can improve your chances of conceiving and having  a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Taking 400 mcg of folic acid before pregnancy can help protect your baby from birth defects.

Substitute sodas that are sweetened with sugar for water and other low or non-sugary drinks. This may help reduce the risk for gestational diabetes.

It’s best to limit caffeine to no more than one or two 6-ounce cups of coffee each day. Some studies show that too caffeine may affect your chances of getting pregnant.

What can you eat to help you have a healthy pregnancy?

It’s common for women to look for information about how to be as healthy as possible before pregnancy. This includes what foods are best to eat and which foods to avoid. For example, you may wonder how the foods you eat can affect a chronic health condition or your fertility.

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.

Eat a balanced diet including:

  • Products made from whole grains including corn tortillas, oatmeal, brown rice, bread, pasta, and cereals
  • Fruit of all types, including raw, frozen, or canned without added sugar, and juice that is 100% fruit juice
  • Vegetables of all colors, including raw, frozen, or “low sodium” canned and 100% vegetable juice
  • Lean protein from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, peanut butter, soybeans and tofu
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy, including milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Healthy fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, vegetable oil, and olive oil

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website can help you plan healthy meals before and during pregnancy.

Any meat that you eat should be cooked thoroughly. Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by a parasite in food. A parasite is a plant or an animal that lives in or on another plant or animal. Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma gondii is found in raw and undercooked meat; unwashed fruits and vegetables; contaminated water; dust; soil; dirty cat litter boxes; and outdoor places where cat poop can be found. If you get toxoplasmosis right before getting pregnant, this can be harmful to you and your baby.

Avoid touching your mouth with your hands after cleaning the litter box or gardening, and make sure that the meat that you eat is cooked properly.

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. Later in pregnancy, you need 600 mcg of folic acid each day to help your baby grow and develop. Take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid each day, even if you're not trying to get pregnant.

If you’re at high risk for having a baby with an NTD, take 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day to help prevent an NTD. Start taking 4,000 mcg 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 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
  • Products made from a kind of flour called corn masa, like tortillas, tortilla chips, taco shells, tamales and pupusas
  • White rice

Should you watch how much sugar you eat?

Eating or drinking too much sugar may raise your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, diabetes and fatty liver disease. It also can make you gain too much weight.

Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates. This includes fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy. Your body digests foods that contain natural sugar slowly. This provides a steady supply of energy to your cells. Make sure you eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables. They may help you reduce the risk of getting a chronic health condition like diabetes, heart disease or some types of cancer.

Added sugars are sugars that aren’t found naturally in foods. It is sugar that is added to foods and drinks to make them taste better. Drinks are the most common source of added sugars. Soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, coffee and tea drinks (not black coffee or tea), flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and most processed foods also have added sugar. It also can be found in foods you may not think are sweet, like soups, bread, cured meats like bologna, and ketchup.

Find added sugars in your foods by checking the food label. Some names for added sugars in foods include honey, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate and dextrose. The American Heart Association (also called AHA) recommends that women limit added sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons a day. That is no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day.

Most adults eat or drink about 77 grams of sugar a day. That is 3 times more sugar than a woman should have. One can of soda contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar. Fresh fruits have natural sugar, but they also have fiber, vitamins and minerals. It is much healthier to eat a piece of fresh fruit or to drink a glass of water than any candy or soda with added sugar.

Food labels will soon include the amount of added sugar in each product. This will make tracking how much added sugar you eat easier.

How much caffeine is safe to drink when trying to get pregnant?

Studies show that women who drink more than 2 cups of coffee or 5 cans of soda that contain caffeine may have a harder time getting pregnant.

Caffeine is found in:

  • Coffee
  • Coffee-flavored products, like yogurt and ice cream
  • Tea
  • Some soft drinks
  • Energy drinks
  • Chocolate and chocolate products, like chocolate syrup and hot cocoa

You may have heard that too much caffeine may cause miscarriage (when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy). Some studies say this is true, and others don’t. Until we know more about how caffeine can affect pregnancy, it’s best to limit the amount you get to 200 milligrams each day. This is about the amount in one 12-ounce cup of coffee or two 6-ounce cups of coffee. Be sure to check the size of your cup to know how much caffeine you’re getting.

The amount of caffeine you get from food and drinks throughout the day adds up. If you have a cup of coffee in the morning, you may want to limit having other foods and drinks during the day that have caffeine. Try drinking water, fruit juice, or decaffeinated tea or coffee instead.

What other nutrients are important before pregnancy?

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

Calcium. Calcium is important for having healthy bones. It is recommended that women get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Good sources of calcium include milk, cheese, yogurt, broccoli, kale, sardines, and orange juice that has calcium added to it. Three servings of food or drinks that contain calcium each day equal about 1,000 milligrams of calcium.

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, and 450 milligrams a day while pregnant. Without enough choline, your baby may develop NTDs or cognitive issues. Some prenatal vitamins contain choline, but is only a small amount, about 55 mg of choline, so you will need to eat foods with choline to get enough. Sources of choline include egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, milk, poultry, pork, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, and nuts.

Fiber. Eating a high-fiber diet with cereals, fruits, and vegetables can lower your risk of developing gestational diabetes. Sources of fiber include fruit, vegetables, beans, bran cereal, and whole-grain bread and pasta.

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 and 220 micrograms of iodine during pregnancy. Not all prenatal vitamins contain iodine, so make sure you eat foods that have iodine in them. Without enough iodine, you may develop hypothyroidism (a condition when the thyroid doesn’t make enough hormones) or an enlarged thyroid. Risks to your baby include brain damage. Sources of iodine include table salt (with iodine added to it), seaweed, saltwater fish, seafood, some dairy products, and fortified cereal and bread.

Iron. Iron is a mineral your body uses to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. You will need twice as much iron during pregnancy than you did before pregnancy. It is recommended that women get 15 to 18 micrograms of iron a day. When you get pregnant, you will need 27 micrograms a day. Most prenatal vitamins will provide enough iron. Other sources include lean red meat, chicken, turkey, sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, oysters, dried beans, peas, nuts, raisins, dried fruit, prune juice, spinach, broccoli, kale, turnip greens, collard greens, whole-grain breads and iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D may help protect your body from infection and 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 and 11 milligrams during pregnancy. Good sources of zinc include oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork, baked beans, fortified breakfast cereal, dark meat chicken, and pumpkin seeds.

Most of your nutrients should come from the foods you eat. Taking prenatal vitamins can help you get all of the nutrients you need to be ready for pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins are multivitamins made just for pregnant women. Compared with a regular multivitamin, they have more of some nutrients that you need during pregnancy. You can start taking prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant.

Can what you eat affect fertility?

Women trying to become pregnant naturally will benefit from a healthy diet with plenty of folic acid, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids These nutrients were linked to a higher rate of fertility. Fertility is a woman’s ability to get pregnant or a man’s ability to get her pregnant.

Eating a lot of fast food, red meat, processed meats, potatoes, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages (especially sodas or energy drinks) may cause fertility issues.

Women who are seeing a health care provider for help getting pregnant may be more likely to conceive with folic acid supplements or eating a diet high in isoflavones (a natural type of the hormone estrogen found in plants).

Talk to your doctor about what diet and supplements are right for you.

How does weight can affect your pregnancy?

Being overweight can make it more difficult to conceive. It also increases your risk of certain issues during pregnancy, including high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, preterm birth, having a stillbirth, having a long delivery, and having a higher chance of needing a cesarean delivery. Losing weight before becoming pregnant can improve your chances of conceiving and delivering a healthy baby.

It’s not healthy to try to lose weight while you are pregnant, so it’s important to take steps before conceiving. To lose weight, you need to use more calories than you eat or drink. The number of calories you need each day depends on your age, height, weight, and the amount of physical activity you get. Most women need to eat or drink 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day. Eating and drinking fewer calories and being more physically active is a safe way to lose weight.

Being underweight when you get pregnant also can be unsafe. Being underweight increases your risk of having a low-birthweight baby or preterm birth. Low birth weight is when a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. These babies may have medical or behavioral problems later in life.

Being overweight can increase your risk of developing gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a kind of diabetes that some women get during pregnancy. Getting to a healthy weight and exercising more now can reduce the chance that you will get gestational diabetes while pregnant.

Talk with your health care provider about what weight is healthy for you before and during pregnancy.

It’s a good idea to have a preconception checkup. A preconception checkup is a medical checkup you get before pregnancy. It helps your health care provider make sure you’re healthy and that your body is ready for pregnancy. The checkup helps your provider treat and sometimes prevent health conditions that may affect your pregnancy. Your health care provider also will talk to you about what you should eat to help you have a healthy pregnancy.

Last reviewed: July, 2020