Why change my diet?
Not only are we what we eat, so to are our children. Research proves time and time again that healthy living and healthy eating results in healthy children, and that our food choices are carried on with a child into adulthood. There is no turning back time to rectify poor food choices and poor eating habits once a child is born with inherited nutrient deficiencies. A preconception diet is not just about ensuring that you are healthy enough to conceive. It is also about ensuring your child has the greatest possible start to life.
Prior to dedicating my practice to fertility, I saw many children who had been diagnosed with behavioural disorders. On further investigation, these children had mineral deficiencies and often essential fatty acid deficiencies. Whilst these defiencies can be rectified through supplementation in children, there are others that cannot. A primary example is folate and iodine deficiencies in pregnancy.
Our preconception dietary recommendations aim to ensure both partners are having a healthy intake of both the macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein) for an optimal body composition as well as all the essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants required for a healthy conception.
It is important for women to establish healthy eating practices prior to conceiving, so that these habits can be carried on throughout the woman’s pregnancy. The preconception diet outlined here can be followed prior to conception, as well as during pregnancy.
Eating good quality, nutritious food is all about nurturing yourself. Only through nurturing yourself , can you come to nurture another human being. If you don’t cook or don’t enjoy cooking, take a cooking class together and learn to appreciate food more.
A good diet is not about eating food to fill a void. It is about looking at the food you are about to choose and thinking “What does my body need and what nutrients will I get from eating this?”.
Eat small meals regularly
It is well established that eating 6 small meals a day is healthier than 2-3 larger meals. Not only will having smaller amounts of food more often lead to healthy blood sugar patterns, eating regularly will prepare women for how to eat properly during their pregnancy.
Women who have irregular eating patterns and crave sugar, especially in the afternoon, often have blood sugar irregularities and are more likely to suffer with more severe morning sickness. If you start to eat properly before you conceive, your hormones will be in a healthier balance and you will have no problem eating regularly during your pregnancy.
Take time to enjoy your food
Consuming food on the go, in front of a computer or in front of a TV will reduce your digestive function and lead to poor digestion and absorption of key nutrients. Try to take the time out each day for meals and enjoy eating.
The macronutrients: protein, fats and carbohydrates
Adequate protein intake 1-2 years prior to conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy is positively correlated with a healthy birth weight, body length as well as healthy skeletal and organ size of newborns. In Assisted Reproductive Studies a low protein diet resulted in fewer eggs for fertilization.
Prior to conception, protein should constitute approximately 30-40% of your daily calorie intake, and possibly more if you exercise frequently or need to gain muscle mass. Protein should come from a variety of sources including fish, a small amount of red meat, chicken, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
1-2 servings of red meat a week is adequate. Due to their large size and longer lifespan pork, lamb and beef are exposed to a higher concentration of pesticides and growth hormones than smaller animals such as chicken. It is better to choose organic red meat where possible.
Fish is an important source of protein and Omega 3 fatty acids. According to the World Health Organization pregnant women need 2.6 g of Omega 3 essential fatty acids, comprising of up to 300mg of the DHA component of Omega 3 daily, to meet the baby’s requirements.
While it is possible to meet preconception requirements of Omega 3 DHA through eating oily fish, it is rare that we clinically see a woman who is consuming enough fish to meet her daily requirements. For this reason, it is essential to take an Omega 3 supplement with at least 400mg per day of DHA.
For more information on DHA see the section on Omega 3 fatty acids under key nutrients for preconception.
Mecury levels in large fish
Mercury is a heavy metal occurring at low levels in the environment. Mercury is emitted as air pollution from coal-fired power plants and ends up in our waterways. Once in the water system, micro-organisms quickly convert the mecury to methylmecury, which fish readily absorb. The methylmecury accumulates in smaller fish and is passed on through the food chain when smaller fish are eaten.
Pregnant women can transfer mercury stored in their bodies, through the placenta to the brain and nervous system of their unborn child. Women trying to conceive should restrict their intake of larger fish that have high levels of accumulated mercury. These fish include; shark, swordfish, wild southern blue-fin tuna, wild albacore tuna and orange roughy.
Canned “light tuna” usually comes from skip-jack tuna which is a smaller fish and contain lower levels of mercury. Most of the canned tuna available in Australia is farmed in Thailand where the fish are often fed vegetable alternatives, rather than smaller ocean fish. The grain fed tuna will have lower mercury content than free tuna and interestingly, they also have a higher content of Omega DHA.
Choosing healthy seafood
Healthy seafood choices include:
- Wild Australian salmon (farmed salmon contains high levels of antibiotics), bream, flathead, King George whiting, leatherjacket, mullet, mulloway or jewfish, trevalley, whiting, snapper
- Blue swimmer crab, western rock lobster, yellow tailed kingfish, crayfish, yabbies, and oysters.
Organic, Free Range Eggs are an excellent source of protein and minerals that are very low in saturated fats. Eggs are a traditional fertility food in many cultures and eating 1-2 eggs 3-4 times a week will not alter cholesterol levels. Omega eggs normally contain Omega 6 and not Omega 3 and are not a substitute for fish or fish oils.
Beans, lentils and legumes
Beans and lentils are a fantastic source of protein and minerals. Beans, Lentils and Chickpeas can be made into dips, added to bolognaise, eaten in salads, or made into soups.
Nuts and seeds
Unsalted raw nuts (macadamias, brazils, almonds, cashews, peanuts, peacans, hazelnuts and walnuts) and healthy nut butters such as tahini, almond butter or natural peanut butter are a healthy source of mono-unsaturated fats and a variety of minerals.
We recommend creating a seed and nut mix jar and eating a handful in between meals or after dinner as a healthy snack option. This is especially useful for people who don’t have time to prepare snacks between meals. Seeds; sunflower, sesame, pepitas or pumpkin seeds, are little power packs of minerals designed to create life.
LSA is a combination of linseed, sesame and almond meal and is available from the supermarket and health food stores. A tablespoon of LSA can be added to breakfast cereals and home-made smoothies. This combination is an excellent source of Linolenic Acid and minerals, especially calcium.
A daily serve of organic dairy products (Greek style, Jalna or Attiki yoghurt, full-cream milk, hard cheese) will help to increase your calcium levels. Each serving gives approximately 300mg of calcium which is 25% of your daily requirements of calcium. To absorb calcium effectively it needs to be a full-fat product. A large study in the UK found that consuming low-fat dairy products led to reduced fertility.
Dairy products are not the only source of calcium and many people are intolerant to dairy products. Other sources of calcium include nuts (especially almonds and walnuts), seeds (especially sesame), tofu and soy products, beans, chickpeas and fish (e.g. whitebait, canned salmon, and sardines). If you don’t eat dairy products or are lactose intolerant, then look for soy milk or rice milk that is high in calcium. Often these milk substitutes are higher in calcium than regular milk.
The majority of your carbohydrate intake should come from fruit and vegetables and a daily serve of whole grain good quality cereals or breads. Carbohydrates should make up 30-40% of your daily food intake.
Breads and cereals
High GI (Glycaemic Index) foods such as white breads, poor quality cereals such as Wheatbix, Cornflakes, Nutrigrain, Special K etc. should be excluded and replaced with better quality low GI cereals, which have a higher nutrient value.
We recommend Carmen’s Muesli, Whisk and Pin or Brookfarm cereal available in different varieties in supermarkets, health food stores and good fruit shops. These brands have a lower GI and contain more good quality nuts and seeds than regular supermarket brand cereals.
It is a great idea to make your own muesli with oats, unprocessed bran, nuts and nutmeals, seeds and coconut flakes and the nuts and seeds we have recommended. Breads we recommend include Burgen and Helga’s because they contain whole grains, seeds, and a higher protein content than many brands available.
Making your own muesli
It is cost effective, easy and fun to make a muesli from scratch. To prepare a good muesli base choose some or all of the following organic grains: rolled oats, rye flakes, barley kernels, wheatgerm, puffed sorghum (gluten free), puffed milled (gluten free), puffed rice (gluten free).
Most of these can be found in health food stores and even supermarkets. Experiment with different mixes and you will soon learn which cereals you like best. For a subtle taste it’s good to include a high proportion of oats.
Mix in some of these chopped organic nuts and seeds: almonds, brazils, cashew nuts, coconut, hazels, macadamia, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts.
Hazels and almonds can be lightly toasted under the grill. Only do this if you are going to eat the muesli mix fairly quickly, as cooked nuts will not keep as long. Toasting brings out the nutty flavours. Put down tin foil or a shallow metal tray and toast on a low heat, watching them like a hawk for burning. You can rub off the brown skins of hazel nuts after toasting.
You can dry roast small seeds such as sesame seeds in a pan over a low heat. Keep them moving by shaking the pan often to stop them burning. Turn the heat off as soon as they start to smell good.
Fruits and vegetables
Recent research indicates that only 50% of pregnant woman eat the required amount of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. A minimum of 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day is recommended.
Eating seasonal fruit and vegetables is generally better for your health. During the winter, root vegetables, oranges and lemons provide the immune system with vitamin C. In summer, cooler salad vegetables maintain the correct body temperature and more fluid for the body. Tests on produce show that the vitamins and minerals from stored vegetables decrease over time. Anything that has been in transit and cold storage for a long time cannot provide the same nutritional benefits as fresh, seasonal foods.
Seasonal fruit and vegetables in Australia
|Apricots, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, cherries, figs, gooseberries, grapes, loganberries, lychees, mangoes, nectarines, passionfruit, peaches, pears, plums, raspberries, rockmelons, star fruit, strawberries, tomatoes, Valencia oranges, watermelons||Capsicums, celery, eggplants, garlic, ginger, leeks, okra, red onions, squash, sweet corn, zucchini|
|Apples, honeydew melons, honey murcot mandarins, limes, papayas, pears, persimmon, tomatoes||Celery, leek, mushrooms, olives, parsnips, red onions, Swedes, turnips, zucchini|
|Apples, mandarins, navel oranges, pears, star fruit, tamarillos, tangelos||Artichokes, avocadoes, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, celery, fennel, garlic, kale, olives, parsnips, Swedes, turnips|
|Apples, blood oranges, papaya, pears, pink grapefruit, strawberries, tamarillos, tangelos, Valencia oranges||Asparagus, broad beans, broccoli, fennel, leeks, peas, sweet corn, zucchini|
|Grapefruit, pineapples||Asian greens, carrots, green beans, lemons, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, rhubarb, silverbeet, spinach, sweet potatoes|
Eat organic fruit and vegetables when possible
Organic farming methods force plants to produce more of the phyto-chemicals and antioxidants required to fend off insects. Organic fruit and vegetables have been found to be higher in nutrients. For example a ten year study comparing organic and conventional tomatoes found the antioxidant levels were an average of 79 and 97 percent respectively.
In March 2008 the US-based organic centre released an analysis of over 100 studies comparing organics and conventional foods. They discovered that in 61 of the studies, the organic foods were nutritionally superior to the conventional foods.
If eating all organics proves to be too expensive then limit it to foods that need higher pesticides and those foods where you eat the skin (zucchini, broccoli, capsicum, apples, peaches, plums, etc.)
Brands of organic food we recommend
- Organic Soul: organicsoul.com.au
- Brookfarm: brookfarm.com.au
- Jalna: jalna.com.au
- Honest to Goodness: goodness.com.au
- Ceres Organics: ceres.co.nz
Key foods to avoid when trying to conceive
Caffeine should be eliminated entirely during the first trimester of pregnancy. The equivalent to 1 regular coffee, one caffeinated beverage or 2-3 high quality green teas per day is preferred. Excess caffeine consumption of greater than 200mg (2 cups of coffee or 4 cups of tea) per day has a role in miscarriage.
All sugar free products should be avoided; many of these contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Aspartame has been associated with neurological damage in the foetus. A healthy diet based on whole foods and without simple carbohydrates will result in weight loss, so there is no need to buy fat-free products that contain these artificial sweeteners.
Reduce Intake of saturated fats. As well as having an influence on weight gain, saturated fats or animal fats especially of large land animals contains high levels of pesticides and antibiotic residue. Processed foods such as biscuits and breads contain high quanities of these saturated fats.
Alcohol depletes vitamins including magnesium and vitamin B and puts an extra load on the liver which is already busied excreting chemicals and hormones in the body. Alcohol should be excluded from a preconception diet. Drinking the occasional red or white wine with dinner is fine, as long as it is limited to 1-2 glasses.
Keep cakes, pastries, lollies, desserts, and biscuits to a minimum. These foods have higher levels of sugar that will affect blood sugar, which plays a role in healthy hormonal function and causes inflammation. Excess sugar also reduces B vitamin levels essential for healthy hormones and fertility.