Pre-pregnancy diet - what to eat when you're trying to conceive

Healthy food for a good pre-pregnancy diet

The moment you decide to try for a baby is the perfect time to review your diet. Let’s face it, most of us could do with a dietary overhaul and there’s no better reason to give your body a fresh start. Making sure you’re getting all the right nutrients – and avoiding the unhealthy stuff – will improve your chances of getting pregnant and give your body the best building blocks to make, and then grow, a baby.

Being overweight or underweight will make it more difficult to conceive, so aim to get to an appropriate weight for your height by eating a varied diet that's full of good, fresh food, and by exercising and avoiding over- or under-eating. Ideally, you should have a BMI of between 18.5 and 25.

Foods to eat when you're trying to conceive

Try to make meals from scratch, using fresh ingredients wherever you can, rather than processed ready meals, which are often high in salt, fat and sugar.

Have a look at the Mumsnet Food pages for recipe inspiration.

Make it your goal to include each of the following in your daily diet:

  • Fruit and vegetables for vitamins and fibre. Eat as wide a range of as many different colours and types as possible.
  • Pasta, grains, potato and bread for carbohydrate. Forget low-carb diets for now (was that a collective cheer we heard?). Your body needs energy, and carbohydrates are the main energy-givers of the food groups. Complex carbs release energy more slowly, so think wholemeal pasta rather than a chip butty.
  • Dairy products for calcium. Recent studies suggest calcium may play a role in the growth of an embryo and certainly once you’re pregnant, you’ll need to ensure you’re getting plenty of it, as growing all those tiny teeth and bones can quickly deplete your own supply. Milk on your cereal or a yoghurt is an easy way to add calcium to your diet. Vegans can get their calcium from soy or green veg.
You need lots of (good) protein to kick-start conception. I eat fish and dairy but no meat, so my nutritionist suggested protein from brown basmati rice, quinoa, beans and lentils, and hummus.
  • Lean meat, eggs, pulses and fish for protein. Try and keep red meat to a minimum and make some of your protein servings vegetarian. Tofu and quinoa particularly are considered to be ‘fertility foods’ (‘smug’ is not one of your five a day, sadly, though you doubtless will be).
  • Nuts, avocado, seeds and oily fish for essential fatty acids. The clue is in the name: EFAs play an essential part in hormone production.

And don’t forget your fluids:

Top up your water. You need to drink plenty, about 1-2 litres a day. Water helps in the process of transporting hormones around the body and even thins cervical mucus, making it easier for sperm to swim.

That women's mag cliché is true, it turns out: water is the elixir of life and keeps just about every organ in the body running smoothly. And there we were thinking that was gin…

Healthy vegetable chilli

Recipe inspiration

Foods to avoid when you're trying to conceive

It can feel like there’s a list as long as your arm of things to avoid in pregnancy, but there are a few it’s worth being aware of when trying to conceive as well:

  • Liver, pate and other foods with high levels of vitamin A (fish liver oils and any multivitamins with vitamin A should be avoided, too). Too much vitamin A from meat and fish sources can cause birth defects. It’s only the retinol type of the vitamin that is a problem, though – the vegetable form (beta carotene) is fine.
  • Shark, swordfish and marlin. Bigger fish that swim deeper in the sea contain high levels of mercury, which could harm a developing baby's nervous system.
  • Oily fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines and fresh tuna. Limit to two portions a week. They are good for you,but can contain pollutants, which can build up in your body over time.
  • Too many processed foods like ready meals and simple carbs and sugars. They’re not dreadful, they just aren’t bringing much to the party nutrition-wise and are usually full of salt and sugar.
  • Alcohol. Government recommendations say alcohol intake should be minimised when you are trying to conceive, just in case you are pregnant and don’t yet know. If you do drink, keep it to 1–2 units, 2–3 times a week and avoid binge drinking (so no saving up your units for a weekend of dancing on tables, which is probably also best avoided for the moment).
  • Caffeine. Drink in moderation. There is inconclusive evidence that caffeine can affect your ability to conceive. There are no guidelines for pre-pregnancy but once you do get pregnant you are advised to only have 200mg a day because of the increased risk of miscarriage. Remember a lot of soft drinks and some medicines contain caffeine, too.

Should I be taking a vitamin supplement pre-pregnancy?

Woman with vitamin supplement tablet pre-pregnancy

A good supplement will ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. It’s not a cure-all for a bad diet, but is a good idea when trying to conceive.

Make sure the one you choose is a version for conception or pregnancy. Some other supplements contain things such as the retinol form of vitamin A or fish liver oil, neither of which are suitable during pregnancy.

The one thing it is very important to take is folic acid to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. The NHS recommends you take this every day while trying to conceive and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Again, a general prenatal vitamin is the best way to go – most supplements contain the recommended 400mcg of folic acid.

However, certain women need to take 5mg a day (see your GP to get this on prescription). You need the higher dose if you: have a child or close relative with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida (or if you or your partner do); have a BMI of over 30; are diabetic or taking drugs for epilepsy; have sickle cell disease, coeliac disease or thalassaemia.

What should men eat when trying to conceive?

Men need zinc to make good sperm. Folic acid is meant to be good for both sexes. The woman must drink plenty of water. I also aim to eat lots of fresh food, especially fruit, veg and wholegrain. It doesn't always go that way though!

It’s a 50:50 business, trying to conceive. Obviously, a dad-to-be’s diet is not quite as vital to a baby’s growth as the mother’s, but they should still be eating healthily pre-conception.

To boost fertility, make sure men are eating foods that contain zinc, selenium and folates, such as Brazil nuts, green veg, walnuts and figs. They also need to drink lots of water to stay hydrated, which will boost sperm count.

It’s a good idea for them to limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol alongside you, and avoid binges. Alcohol particularly is known to have an effect on male fertility.