Getting pregnant can feel like a lottery, especially when you’re in your thirties. It’s easy to overlook just how important a role nutrition plays when it comes to conceiving, so we consulted Britain’s most trusted nutritionist Jane Clarke to get her thoughts on food and fertility.
How important is your diet when you’re trying to conceive?
I think it’s incredibly important to try and nourish your body well when you’re trying to get pregnant, as it’s not only going to help improve your chances of conceiving (when we bear in mind key focus minerals such as iron and zinc), reduce the chances of having a baby with neural tube problems such as spina bifida (if you eat a diet plentiful enough in folic acid-which should include taking a pregnancy folic acid supplement, as we’re seldom able to reach the recommended folic acid levels in our body without one). But also, once you are pregnant, all sorts of challenges can rear their heads, from morning sickness to food cravings and aversions, so if you’ve eaten and nourished yourself whilst trying to conceive, you should find yourself in a much stronger place.
Let’s not forget that eating well and feeling positive about the foods you’re eating can be such a psychological as well as a physiological boost, which could just help ease the anxieties of trying to conceive, as well as help boost energy levels, how sexy you feel, and your libido.
What should my average calorie intake be?
I’m not usually an advocate of calorie counting, as it can not only be tricky to work it out and pretty laborious – always juggling the figures and looking at labels, but also, I find that we all vary so much as to how many calories and which sorts of foods suit us best. Generally, however, if I had to state a figure we should be around the 2000 a day mark, but from my perspective I’m far more keen on us all eating a nourishing supply of different foods, enjoying what we eat and feeling inspired to feed ourselves well.
What should I do if I am overweight or underweight with regards to preparing my body the best I can for pregnancy?
If you’re overweight, I think if you can, try to get your weight down a bit before you try to get pregnant – even if it’s setting aside a couple of months to eat well and incorporate some exercise which tones the body and raises the metabolic rate, to get some of the excess weight down before you’re pregnant and having to potentially deal with food issues such as cravings, or things which completely repulse you, just simply because your hormones have shifted into the being pregnant gear.
Studies show that if you can lose excess weight, then your chances of conceiving are increased, and I certainly see from women I treat, that if you can get into a ‘feeling positive about your body’ place, by losing some excess, this all helps to give you the right mind set to take you forward and keep you going once you’re your pregnant.
If you’re underweight, ask yourself the question whether this is a good time to ensure you’re eating well enough for yourself let alone to nurture a new life? Sometimes if you’ve been overly anxious about your body image and kept your body too light, for whatever reason, the desire to get pregnant can be a good positive stimulus to look at the way you nourish yourself – being underweight can play havoc with your reproductive hormones, you need enough body fat to metabolise the right levels of oestrogen for one thing, so if you can start to eat better, incorporate plenty of nourishing foods, which don’t have to be calorie rich, but just energy and protein rich enough to ensure your weight and body fat levels increase to the required levels to keep your body strong and healthy enough throughout pregnancy.
I’ve had an eating disorder in the past – will this affect my chances of getting pregnant?
Nowadays I wonder what can and should be classified as an eating disorder, as I think so many women have disordered eating, perhaps being more fearful of certain foods, avoiding things etc, but can be on the outside seemingly of normal weight. You can walk around looking alright, but all sorts of anxieties can mean that you restrict yourself too much which can ultimately affect your chances of getting pregnant. Of course the usual anorexia nervosa where you are far too light can affect your hormonal levels throughout life and indeed reduce your chances of getting pregnant, but plenty of women, who have struggled with this in their past go on to be very happily and healthily pregnant and wonderful mums. It’s never too late to start looking after your body food wise, as this can, along hopefully with any necessary medical support get you into a much stronger place to be able to get pregnant.
What foods should I be targeting, and what foods should I avoid?
Really asking yourself ‘is this food going to nourish me’ before you eat it can be one of the easiest ways to make a start as you try to incorporate lots of nourishing foods, such as a vast array of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins (good fish, meat, poultry, lentils beans etc) and some wholegrains, etc. The list of foods to try and incorporate is vast, so you might like to look in my book NOURISH for more ideas and specifics, as well as cover off the foods which should be best avoided for food poisoning and safety reasons, such as the soft cheeses and raw meat.
Get peace of mind by avoiding the high risk foods, but other than that, really focus of getting a good selection of as many fresh vitamin and mineral packed foods as possible and also don’t forget the water – I would aim for a good 2-2.5L’s each day. Keeping a diary of what you’re eating and drinking, as well as when and why you’re doing it can be a wonderful tool for motivating you to eat and treat yourself well.
Should I be stocking up on super foods, and what sort?
I think everyone should be stocking up on as many superfoods as possible, as they’re great. From the broccoli to the blueberries and pumpkin seeds rich in phytonutrients and all wonders of essential nutrients. In essence, all fruits and vegetables are super, as they’re all rich in some valuable nutrient, even if it’s a bramley apple which I love stewed in the morning with some Greek yoghurt and nuts sprinkled on top. Apples are rich in vitamin C and fibre and also something called pectin, which is great for the gut – I find it settling as well as delicious.
What are the best supplements to begin taking, and how long should I be taking them before trying to get pregnant? Are there supplements my partner should take?
The ideal is to take a special pregnancy folic acid supplement, as this reduces your chances of having a baby with spina bifida – it’s just you who needs to take it, not your partner. Supplements, other than folic acid, which we recommend every wishing-to-be-pregnant woman should take, should be recommended on an individual basis, as we are all different, with different health histories, as well as demands on our every day, so I would suggest seeing a professional dietitian, who can help steer you through the quagmire of supplements out there.
Should I be limiting my alcohol intake while trying to get pregnant? Should my partner be watching the amount he drinks too?
Current advice is that women trying to conceive should avoid alcohol and men shouldn’t drink more than 3-4 units a day and should avoid binge-drinking to prevent any damage to the sperm. But while this is the official line, I think it seems horribly one-sided when perhaps it can be good for you both to take some time off the alcohol or at least cut your intake down.
Being stone cold sober may be not what every couple wants or needs, because when, as so often there is, some anxiety within your relationship about the whole issue of getting pregnant (this can be often be the case when you’re both so desperate to succeed and having sex becomes surrounded by pressure thermometers, dates, positions, etc.), a glass or two can lift the mood and make having sex far more enjoyable. Admittedly drinking alcohol on an empty stomach will make the effects of the alcohol more pronounced and so you can be overly anxious or ravenously hungry – we all know that Friday evening drinking scenario when even the smallest glass of wine can make you feel slightly drunk, whereas drinking the same glass on Sunday evening when you’ve eaten and rested well during the weekend can appear not to affect you.
So if you’re not wanting to fall asleep or be so woozy and not particularly in the mood for sex, then perhaps wait until you’ve got some food in your stomach before you drink the alcohol, as the food slows down the absorption and therefore the effects of the alcohol. Drinking plenty of water reduces the effects of the alcohol too.
We’ve read that eating burger and chips can help you to have a baby boy and if you eat chocolate you’ll be more likely to have a girl – is it true that what you eat can determine the sex of your baby?
Unfortunately, or fortunately whichever way you look at it, the food you eat can’t influence the likelihood of having a baby of one particular gender!
Does the diet of my partner affect our chances of pregnancy, and what foods should he be avoiding / eating in particular?
I think the diet of your partner can have an equally important effect on your chances of getting pregnant – it’s perfect if you can eat and nourish yourselves at the same time. Zinc rich foods can be a useful place to start and get him interested in the whole notion of nourishing himself, as a low zinc level can trigger low libido and rather usefully lean red meat is rich in zinc, so this could just be music to his ears! Have a look in my book Nourish if you want more ideas and ways to inspire him!