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Today we are kicking off our new pregnancy nutrition series by talking about preparing your body for pregnancy. We’ll share our best nutrition recommendations as well as lifestyle considerations.
This article was written by Courtney Moore, MS RDN LD. Courtney is a registered dietitian nutritionist living in Dallas, TX with her husband and baby girl. She studied Human Nutrition, Food Science and Hospitality with a concentration in dietetics at the University of Arkansas (woo pig!) and completed her dietetic internship as well as her Master’s of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She has worked in many different areas of nutrition, spending most of her years as a transplant nutrition specialist but found that her heart is in preventive medicine and wellness! As a subject matter expert, Courtney regularly contributes articles about all things food and nutrition. Take it away, Courtney!
Mentally Preparing for Pregnancy
First, before you do the physical preparations, we encourage you to mentally prepare. Take time to stop and begin making some shifts in your mindset. One of the most important things that can be one of the hardest for some people to wrap their heads around is that your body will change… and it should! When we really think about pregnancy and all the miraculous things the body does while growing a human, it is amazing. As that little human grows in our belly, we, of course, need to expect to see changes in our bodies.
Pre-pregnancy is not a time to get as fit as possible, especially if it is motivated by the hopes that it will dictate how you look throughout the pregnancy or even post-partum. While preparing for pregnancy, taking inventory of your own vanity is another important step. Assess your motivations, what you may be holding on to, and what needs to be surrendered. Often times, what we do to “look” our best on the outside doesn’t always equate to what is healthiest for us or for nourishing a new life. This time of pregnancy prep is all about building up the most healthy and nourished body possible so that we can support the growth of a healthy baby.
One more note regarding pregnancy and mindset is to mentally prepare and understand that pregnancy is not a time to “win” at anything. The goal is to do your best and nourish your body as best as you can. There is no reward for only gaining 25 pounds or for gaining 50 pounds. Embrace the mindset of taking care of yourself, being reasonable with yourself, and trusting your body to take great care of that baby. A healthy you and a healthy baby are all that matter now.
How soon before conception should you start preparing your body for pregnancy?
There is no specific or special time too soon to start preparing your body for pregnancy. But, if you do want some sort of time reference, we recommend 9 months to start doing your research and implementing some of these best practices we’ll talk about! The idea here is to use the 9 months to allow your body enough time to detox any lifestyle toxins (think: from skincare and household cleaning products). That would be the main reason to start preparing sooner than later. Then, you’ll start focusing in on key nutrients to build up your health.
When should I change my diet to prepare for pregnancy?
Alright, let’s dive into talking about what to eat to get pregnant. First – time frame. Again, as we said earlier, there really is not too early of a time to start preparing and begin building up great nutrient stores, but about 3 months before you start trying to conceive is a great time to start really focusing in and building up your nutrition.
Pre-Conception Nutrition Recommendations
Per usual, we recommend that you continue eating the foods that you already know make you feel your best and are nutrient-dense. You do not need to make a drastic shift in your diet right now!
#1: Increase intake of B12, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Folate
A recent review of previous studies related to fertility and nutrition from Harvard was published in 2019 and it found that Vitamin B12, Omega-3 fatty acids, folate/folic acid positively impacted fertility and showed an overall benefit from healthy, nutrient-dense diets (1).
- Top food sources for B12: liver, clams, fish, nutritional yeast
- Top food sources for Omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, sardines, mackerel, walnuts
- Top food sources for folate: beef or chicken liver, spinach, black-eyed peas
A quick note on folate – folate is the naturally occurring version of vitamin B9; you may have heard it as folic acid which is the synthetic version of folate. Methylated folate is a version of folate that is most readily absorbable. Folate is super important in the early stages of pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects in the baby. We’d recommend finding a supplement with methylated folate or adding pastured chicken livers in your routine about once a week to fulfill your folic acid needs!
#2: Drink 1 cup of grapefruit juice per day
You may be wondering what grapefruit juice has to do with fertility, but did you know it can help promote healthy levels of cervical fluid? Cervical mucus/fluid is a fluid that is secreted by the cervix based on estrogen levels that is super important for conception. Its primary job is to help the sperm get to where it needs to go. Around the time of ovulation, estrogen levels surge and naturally promote the creation of more cervical mucus, but there are still additional ways to support it.
The idea of drinking grapefruit juice to help promote cervical fluid from the thought that grapefruit juice contains furanocoumarins. When consumed, these interact with the system that helps break down estrogen. When we are trying to increase cervical mucus (and therefore, increase estrogen), slowing or delaying the breakdown of the estrogen, in theory, allows the levels of estrogen to stay higher longer and in return hopefully increase the cervical mucus/fluid (6).
#3: Aim for at least 1 serving of dense leafy greens each day
This can be kale, spinach, chard, collards, etc. Dark leafy greens are the jackpot when it comes to nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, folate, and calcium. They also are loaded with antioxidants.
#4: Store up beforehand to prepare for a potentially bland first trimester.
For many women, the first trimester of pregnancy can be riddled with migraines and severe nausea—neither of which makes you want to grab a salmon salad or make chicken liver for dinner. Many just stick to whatever they can tolerate or whatever they think they can keep down – which is absolutely great! Listen to your body during this time. The beauty of storing up prior to conception is that your body has plenty of nutrition to use to grow that sweet babe.
Nutrition Recommendations for Each Phase of Your Cycle
Before we start talking about how or what to eat for each phase of your cycle, it is important to know about each phase and what is happening. If you are not familiar with each phase of your cycle, we would encourage you to pause on this article and visit HERE for a great, very user-friendly resource explaining each phase. Then, come back and join us to break down the nutrition for each phase!
What to Eat During the Menstruation Phase
During the menstruation phase, energy levels will likely be at the lowest. During this phase, try to focus on making sure you’re getting adequate iron and B12 intake. Since we are losing iron during this phase (through bleeding), making sure we are consuming enough can help fight the sluggish feelings. The best way to replace your iron stores? Meat! Whip up some great burgers, fish tacos or your favorite chicken dish! Don’t forget to add some greens on the side for Vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron more efficiently. B12 can also support energy levels, and the great news here is that you’ll typically find iron and B12 in the same place! So as you’re enjoying some extra iron from yummy burgers, you’ll be getting the benefit of a B12 booster.
What to Eat During the Follicular phase
Early follicular phase energy levels may be low and appetite may be less- listen to your body and eat according to your activity level and your hunger cues. Later in the follicular phase, hormone levels are rising, and energy levels should be peaking again too. Your hunger may increase, so make sure you are nourishing your body with quality proteins and healthy fats.
What to Eat During the Ovulatory Phase
During ovulation, hormone levels are at their peak, and energy levels should be too! With your estrogen level being at its highest, try to eat anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods (think almonds, salmon, leafy greens, fruits, veggies, etc.) to nourish your liver and protect your body from environmental toxins. Also, this is the time to grab some grapefruit juice each morning if you’re trying to conceive!
What to Eat During the Luteal phase
During the luteal phase, you may still be experiencing higher energy as well as a ramped-up appetite! As you listen to your body and increase your food intake (due to increased appetite), focus on high-quality protein and fats. Fill up your plate with a little extra of that chicken you made or maybe a little more avocado.
This is also the phase when cravings may occur! Snag >70% dark chocolate to snack on as it can be a great (and yummy) tool to help combat those cravings. Also, add another serving of lemony kale to your plate—trying to up your greens and fiber intake can help fight these cravings.
What can I do if I have an irregular menstrual cycle?
A few things to consider here if you do not have a normal cycle. Keeping in mind the goal of prepping for pregnancy- we want to try to normalize our cycle. If you traditionally follow, or have followed, a grain-free or low-carb diet and do not have a normal cycle, we recommend increasing your carbohydrate intake, especially around your luteal phase. (A quick reminder of a great resource on figuring out phases of your cycle HERE).
Another component to consider here is the number of inflammatory foods you may be consuming. Decreasing foods like highly processed grains, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils (not including olive oil) and conventional beef/poultry (note that pastured and grass-fed beef/poultry is GREAT to consume) can be helpful with syncing up your cycle.
What type of lifestyle changes should I consider when preparing my body for pregnancy?
#1: Minimize and Reduce Stress
This involves both physically (food, exercise, sleep, etc.) and emotionally. Pregnenolone is a precursor to all hormones: DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol. When you’re in a constant state of stress, cortisol levels are elevated (and more cortisol is made). When cortisol is getting priority, fewer sex hormones are being made. Decreasing stress in all arenas will first help support hormone balance.
- Food: We’ve discussed how eating foods that are anti-inflammatory is important when prepping our bodies for pregnancy, and they will also help in decreasing stress as well.
- Exercise: This can go two ways. For you, it may mean increasing your exercise if you are in an emotionally stressful season and some physical activity may help balance you out. Or, it could mean taking it down a notch and limiting your high demand workouts to 1-2 times per week and choosing less strenuous physical activity on the other days to allow your body to recover.
- Rest/Sleep: Under-rested and sleep-deprived bodies can create physical stress. Try to prioritize times of rest and adequate amount of sleep at night to get your body into a rhythm to help reduce the physical stress.
- Emotionally: This has been spoken about many times, and reducing stress on an emotional level can be much easier said than done, but is so important. Strategize ways that are best for you to decrease this emotional stress. This can include deep breathing, yoga, giving yourself 30 minutes of YOU time, starting a gratitude journal; the list goes on!
#2: Improve Your Sleep
Yes, sleep is important to help reduce stress, but it also plays a large role in hormone regulation. The same part of the brain that regulates the wake & sleep hormones also regulates hormones directly related to ovulation and sperm maturation (11). Lack of sleep directly plays a role or can lead to an imbalance in estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone and prolactin – all of which are important in regular cycles and conception. Prioritizing sleep to prep your body for pregnancy is a big deal. If you struggle with sleep, try to identify things that may be playing a role in your lack of sleep. Is it distraction due to electronics (phone, computer, social media, TVs)? Are you choosing to wake up early for a workout every day and in that sacrificing adequate sleep? Whatever it may be, try to identify it and find ways to remove the distraction and/or prioritize sleep as you are able.
#3: Make the Swap for Safer Skincare and Cleaning Products
While preparing your body for pregnancy, going ahead and making the swap for safer skincare and cleaning products early is a great idea. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are plastics that are found in many skincare products and cleaning products – items many of us use daily. EDCs can cause problems with hormone regulation by tricking the body into thinking it is a hormone, therefore, causing a hormonal response at an inappropriate time. This then can cause disruption for healthy hormone activity (12). EDCs are everywhere- we can consume them through food and beverages, they can be in our soils where our produce grows or enter our bodies through contamination within our living spaces. While we cannot completely avoid EDCs, we can minimize our exposure! Two easy areas where we could minimize EDC exposure are swapping our skincare and cleaning products. EDCs can be passed from mother to baby – so it is important to make the swap before you’re even pregnant.
- Our Choice for Safer Cleaning Products: Branch Basics (use the code FEDANDFIT15 for 15% off your order!)
- Our Choice for Safer Beauty and Skincare: Beautycounter and Primally Pure (use the code FEDANDFIT10 for 10% off your first order with Primally Pure)
If you’re looking for more ideas, check out this article on simple swaps for safer.
#4: Consider Limiting Alcohol
When should you stop drinking alcohol? There is no one size fits all for this one. You know you best. If you KNOW you’re currently drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, reassessing now is a good idea. Alcohol, especially when consumed frequently and in excess, will deplete your body’s nutrients (the opposite of an ideal fertility nutrition protocol). Regardless of your current alcohol consumption frequency, it’s best to avoid entirely at ovulation and until your menstrual cycle starts (meaning that you didn’t become pregnant that cycle). If you’re experiencing some difficulties and want to boost your chances of conception, we also recommend avoiding alcohol starting the week before ovulation in an effort to foster the healthiest cervical fluid possible.
We hope this guide to preparing your body for pregnancy has helped you determine what to consider doing before you start trying to conceive. Stay tuned for our next installment in this series when we will talk all about first-trimester nutrition.
Above all of what we said here, always consulting with your doctor and figuring out what is best for you is the most important. We are not physicians and words said here are not to replace or over-rule anything that your doctor recommends or has recommended. We strongly encourage you to follow the guidelines set out by your doctor.
- Gaskins, Audrey J, and Jorge E Chavarro. “Diet and Fertility: a Review.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5826784/.
- “Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/#h3.
- “Office of Dietary Supplements – Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/#h3.
- “Office of Dietary Supplements – Folate.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/#h3.
- “Cervical Mucus and Your Fertility.” American Pregnancy Association, 16 Oct. 2019, americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/cervical-mucus/.
- Meisel, Lindsay. “How Drinking Grapefruit Juice Could Increase Your Cervical Mucus.” Ava, 16 July 2019, www.avawomen.com/avaworld/grapefruit-juice-cervical-mucus/.
- Bjaradottir, Adda. “13 Foods to Eat When You’re Pregnant.” Healthline, Healthline Parenthood, July 2018, www.healthline.com/nutrition/13-foods-to-eat-when-pregnant#TOC_TITLE_HDR_7.
- Shmerling, Robert H. “Fertility and Diet: Is There a Connection?” Harvard Health Blog, 28 May 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fertility-and-diet-is-there-a-connection-2018053113949.
- Watson, Stephanie. “Stages of the Menstrual Cycle.” Edited by Holly Ernst, Healthline, Aug. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/stages-of-menstrual-cycle#menstrual.
- Kloss, Jacqueline D, et al. “Sleep, Sleep Disturbance, and Fertility in Women.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4402098/.
- ARC Fertility. “Problems with Sleep? You Might Have Problems with Fertility, Too.” ARC Fertility, 24 Sept. 2019, www.arcfertility.com/problems-with-sleep-you-might-have-problems-with-fertility-too/.
- “What EDCs Are.” Endocrine Society, 2019, www.endocrine.org/topics/edc/what-edcs-are.
Just for You
Want more tips and resources to help moms thrive?
You guys do a great job of helping us be more aware of different areas to transition to safer options. What do you suggest about all the suggestions for the flu and the dtap vaccine?
Thanks for all of this info. I see what you wrote about what specifically you want in your prenatal supplement but I was wondering if you recommend a specific brand or type of prenatal vitamin? Thanks!
Amber Goulden says
Cassy uses Smartypants, but of course we also always recommend asking your doctor before starting anything new!
Blaine Esbin says
I am 7 weeks pregnant and really struggling with my diet and exercise due to non-stop nausea. Before getting pregnant I had a very healthy diet and would workout 6 days a week. Now all I can stomach is bread and I am lucky if I workout 4 days/week. Do you have any advice on how to try to maintain a healthy diet while curbing the nausea? Also, any recommendations for alleviating the nausea?
Love this! Thank you so much for sharing!