Hi everyone! I’m Beverly Chester.
My undergrad is in Nutrition Science, I have professional certifications in health, personal training, and youth exercise. I’m currently set to graduate in April with a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) degree. My career field is in Health Promotions, where I teach about nutrition, exercise, and weight management.
And of course, last but certainly not least, I’m a mother of two boys (ages 2 and 4 years old) and I’m a USMC spouse. I met Natalee a few years ago while living in Okinawa; we lived in the same building and we had our first babies around the same time. I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to write this post about preconception nutrition!
I LOVE FOOD. I majored in it, for crying out loud. I love food, I love cooking, I love eating….and repeat! So as a nutrition educator, I want people to feel the passion I have for food. Real, mother-nature-made, God-given, non-processed food has such power for us to use to our advantage. Let’s talk about how to harness the power of food for the health of you, your family, and your pregnancy.
The book “Brain Rules for Baby” by Dr. John Medina is a wonderful resource for parents-to-be. I highly recommend it. It lays out a perfect argument for beginning healthy eating habits way before you plan to get pregnant. Plus, if we consider all of the small healthy habits that add up to make an overall healthy lifestyle, they can seem mountainous. Those habits take time to develop. Start now – don’t wait.
The American Pregnancy Association (APA) also discusses “preconception nutrition” on their website. First, women who want to conceive should begin their journey at a healthy weight. Otherwise, mother and baby are at higher risk of dangerous conditions like gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. There are a couple of specific nutrients that mom-to-be needs to have in her system (ideally) before she conceives. We’ll go over those nutrients and food sources to get them:
Folic acid, for example, is one of the nutrients listed on the APA website and also discussed by Dr. John Medina. Found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, citrus fruits, and whole grains, folic acid is essential to create a growing baby’s nervous system. The nervous system (i.e. spinal cord and brain) is the first fetal body part that develops after conception. You probably won’t even know you’re pregnant yet, but this super important organ structure is forming in baby! Without sufficient amounts of folic acid, baby has a higher risk of being born with Spina bifida – a condition where part of the spinal cord develops externally of the bones and skin. Other results of folate deficiency to baby include cognitive impairment, learning disorders, and disorders of mental or physical development. That’s why we suggest you eat right starting NOW, before trying to conceive.
Calcium is a second nutrient that mama should eat plenty of before conception. Like the nervous system, baby starts developing bones just after conception, often before mom knows she’s pregnant. The fetus will actually draw calcium out of mom’s bones if there isn’t enough in mom’s daily diet, which puts mom at risk of osteoporosis later in life. Dietitians recommend 1000 mg of calcium per day for women. Manufacturers of alternative milks (soy, cashew, and almond milk alternatives) fortify their drinks with calcium supplements. Fish like sardines and canned salmon that are eaten with bones are a good source of calcium, too. Also, talk to your healthcare provider about a calcium supplement.
*While milk is a great source of calcium, there is a growing debate about whether or not humans should drink it. Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc) are probably okay to eat in small amounts, but I personally believe we over-consume these products in the USA. There are environmental impacts and health impacts associated with eating as much dairy as we do. In fact, Canada has completely eliminated the dairy food group from its national food guide, and I agree with that decision. Now listen, pizza and lasagna are literally my favorite foods, so I understand why people wouldn’t want to completely give it up. ”Everything in moderation,” right? But consider trying to eat other sources of calcium outside of dairy products.*
Iron is a third nutrient that mothers may need to focus on before pregnancy or at conception. Iron boosts fertility, which is obviously good for mothers trying to conceive! During pregnancy, iron is essential to move oxygen through the bloodstream. A pregnant mother will eventually have extra blood in her blood stream to help support the extra human(s) living there. Iron is needed to make sure mother and baby stay healthy in a wide variety of ways; without iron, pregnant women may feel weak or fatigued, may look pale, may have lightheadedness or become dizzy, may have chest pain, shortness of breath, or irregular heartbeats. The baby will suffer from anemia too, resulting in a higher risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and in severe cases, death. So to increase dietary iron, eat whole grains (like rolled oats for example), red meat (like beef, lamb, or venison), seafood (octopus, oysters), legumes (soy, tofu, lentils, peas), and beans.
I know that discussing these medical conditions seem like “DOOM AND GLOOM” but it’s not intended to scare anyone. The truth is this: mother and baby are much better off when mom’s eating habits are filled with plants, whole grains, protein, and water! Your healthcare provider will probably prescribe a prenatal vitamin to help boost these necessary vitamins and minerals, but you play an important role in making sure baby gets what it needs with your food choices.
The current USDA food guide is My Plate – a lot of my clients don’t realize we no longer use the Food Guide Pyramid that we were all taught in the 1990’s and 2000’s. The new guidelines recommend that HALF OF YOUR PLATE BE FILLED WITH PLANTS (i.e. fruits and vegetables). I rarely have a hard time convincing people to eat fruit. It’s juicy, it’s sweet, we like it. I often have a hard time getting clients to eat vegetables, though.
So please, eat your veggies! For your own health and for baby’s.
Thanks for reading – good luck and warmest wishes on your conception and pregnancy journey!
1) Medina JJ. Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five. Seattle, WA; Medina JJ, 2014.
2) American Pregnancy Association. Preconception Nutrition. APA website: https://americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/preconception-nutrition/. Updated Jan 2019. Accessed Feb 2019.
3) University of Rochester Medical Center. Nutrition Before Pregnancy. URMC website: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P02479. Accessed Feb 2019.
4) Dietitians of Canada. Food Sources of Calcium. Dietitians of Canada website: https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/f739d485-d113-4a46-8122-eb2d33730c64/Factsheet-Food-Sources-of-Calcium.pdf.aspx. Accessed Feb 2019.
5) Dietitians of Canada. Food Sources of Iron. Dietitians of Canada website: https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Factsheets/Food-Sources-of-Iron.aspx. Accessed Feb 2019.
6) Mayo Clinic. Iron Deficiency anemia during pregnancy: Prevention tips. Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/anemia-during-pregnancy/art-20114455. Published Feb 2017. Accessed Feb 2019.
7) Dietitians of Canada. Thinking about having a baby? Dietitians of Canada website: https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/db38fc04-2c1b-4255-8578-59564d3901d7/FactSheet---Thinking-About-having-a-Baby.pdf.aspx. Accessed Feb 2019.
8) Mayo Clinic. Spina bifida. Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spina-bifida/symptoms-causes/syc-20377860. Published March 2018. Accessed Feb 2019.
9) United States Department of Agriculture. Health and Nutrition Information. My Plate website: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/moms-pregnancy-breastfeeding. Updated April 2018. Accessed Feb 2019.