Dr. Sarah Schenker
TRYING FOR A BABY
Dr Sarah Schenker, Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist and member of the British Dietetic Association, The Nutrition Society and the Association for Nutrition, provides her expert recommendations below for couples trying to conceive.
Eating healthily and getting the right balance of nutrients from your diet, along with maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise, can help to increase your chances of conceiving.
It is particularly important that your diet and lifestyle are healthy when you are trying for a baby and during pregnancy. This is because what you eat and your lifestyle habits not only influence your own health and fertility, but can also affect your growing baby, right from the moment he or she is conceived.
While most women will be keen to make the right changes to increase their chance of becoming pregnant, they are not the only ones who need to think about their diet and lifestyle. Men should consider changes to their diet and lifestyle when trying for a baby too. Diet can affect male fertility – eating a healthy varied diet and reducing alcohol intake can improve sperm quality and increase the chances of you and your partner conceiving.
Be a healthy weight
Being overweight can reduce the chances of conceiving, therefore, ideally, men should try to maintain a body mass index within the healthy range of 20 to 25. Even if you don’t lose enough weight to have a BMI of 25 or less, losing some weight and increasing your activity levels is likely to be beneficial. Losing weight can help to improve your energy levels which is important when you need to have a lot of sex!
Regular exercise will not only help with weight loss, but it can have a huge influence on your sense of wellbeing and confidence. These factors are also important for a good sex life.
It is vital to eat healthily to get a wide variety of nutrients needed for male fertility. Certain nutrients are known to influence fertility in men, so try to include them in your diet more often.
Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C and selenium are needed for healthy sperm. Including foods such as Brazil nuts, fish, bread, meat and eggs for selenium, and fresh citrus fruits, green vegetables, peppers and tomatoes for vitamin C will provide plenty of these nutrients without the need for supplements.
- 6 Brazil nuts = 550mcg selenium
- 1 tuna steak = 90mcg selenium
- 1 small beef steak = 35mcg selenium
- 1 egg = 15mcg selenium
- 1 kiwi = 64mg Vit C
- 1 orange = 70mg Vit C
- 1 red pepper = 95mg Vit C
- 1 tomato = 17mg Vit C
Low levels of zinc have also been linked to a low sperm count and reduced testosterone levels. Men can help keep their zinc levels topped up by including shellfish (such as oysters, the richest source), wholegrain cereals and nuts in their diet. Zinc is also found in lean meat and dairy products:
- 60g oysters = 74mg zinc
- 1 bowl of porridge = 1.5mg zinc
- 30g nuts = 2mg zinc
Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, are a good source of omega-3 fats that help produce prostaglandins, which are important for making sperm.
Excess alcohol can affect sperm quality. It is recommended by the Department of Health that men should not drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, but when trying for a baby it is a good idea to give up altogether. Avoid binge drinking, this can destroy sperm and negatively affect your sex life. It is recommended that men aim to do 30 mins of exercise 5 days a week and try to include a variety of types including weight bearing exercise, strength and cardiovascular.
Aim for a healthy weight
Your body weight can affect your fertility. Being a healthy weight may increase your chances of becoming pregnant. Women who have too little body fat often have irregular periods or no periods at all. This is probably because a particular level of body fat (and food intake) is required to support a healthy pregnancy. If you are very skinny and you have problems becoming pregnant, gaining weight can help to restore your fertility.
Having too much body fat can also lower your fertility. Some women who have excess body fat don’t ovulate normally. So your chances of becoming pregnant can increase if you lose some weight. However, avoid crash dieting as it may mean your body does not get all the nutrients it needs. Instead, aim for a healthy rate of weight loss (1-2lbs / 0.5-1kg of weight loss a week) with a healthy varied diet and regular exercise.
Your fertility health as well as your overall health depends on your body receiving a good supply of all the vitamins and minerals it needs to support body processes. It is well documented that many women have poor intakes of vitamins and minerals due to faddy eating and unhealthy choices. Now is the time to think about including wholegrains, nuts, pulses, more fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats and dairy products.
If you are trying for a baby, you should take a 400 microgram (or more if advised by your doctor) folic acid supplement each day and continue to take this until you are 12 weeks pregnant. You should also eat more foods that contain natural folates – e.g. green leafy vegetables, fruit, bread and fortified breakfast cereals. Folate and folic acid are important during preconception and early pregnancy as it can reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, as well as supporting healthy blood for mums to be.
- Portion of broccoli = 52mcg folic acid
- Slice of wholegrain bread = 40mcg folic acid
- Half an avocado = 54mcg folic acid
Vitamin D is also important during pregnancy to help build your growing baby’s bones and all pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to take a vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms per day).
- 1 salmon steak = 11mcg Vit D
- 1 tbsp margarine = 1.5mcg Vit D
- 1 egg = 1mcg Vit D
Eat fish but choose carefully
Oily fish is a good source of omega-3 fats and other nutrients, and should be eaten as part of a healthy varied diet when you are trying for a baby. Omega-3 fats have an important role in the development of the central nervous system, the brain and the retina of the foetus, as well as supporting a healthy heart in mums.
It is recommended that women trying for a baby eat two portions of fish (one portion is 140g, cooked weight) a week, one of which should be oily fish. However, don’t eat shark, swordfish and marlin, and limit the amount of tuna you eat to no more than two tuna steaks a week or four cans of tuna a week. This is because the mercury in these fish could build up in your body and subsequently damage the baby’s developing nervous system. Also, limit your intake of oily fish (e.g. salmon, fresh tuna, sardines, trout and mackerel) to no more than two portions a week.
Avoid drinking alcohol
It is best that you avoid drinking alcohol when you are trying to conceive. High intakes of alcohol may affect your baby’s development, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy. As there may be a gap between when you conceive and when you find out that you are pregnant, it is best to simply avoid drinking alcohol during this time.
Look at your iron intake
When you are pregnant, there is a chance that you could become iron deficient. When you’re trying to become pregnant you should try to build up your iron stores, by choosing plenty of iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron are red meat, poultry and fish. Some plant food such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and wholegrains also contain iron, but it is less available to your body compared to iron from animal sources. Vitamin C helps absorb the iron from plant sources, e.g. a small glass of orange juice with a bowl of wholegrain cereal.
- 1 portion of beef = 5mg iron
- 2 tbsp of kidney beans = 3mg iron
- Portion of spinach = 2mg iron
Limit caffeine intake
You should also limit your caffeine intake when you are trying for a baby. The Food Standards Agency suggests that women who are pregnant should consume no more than 200mg caffeine a day. The amount of caffeine in food and drink will vary, but as a guide each of these contains roughly 200mg or less of caffeine:
- 2 mugs of instant coffee (100mg each)
- 1 mug of filter coffee (140mg each)
- 2 mugs of tea (75mg each)
- 5 cans of cola (up to 40mg each)
- 2 cans of ‘energy’ drink (up to 80mg each)
- 4 (50g) bars of plain chocolate (up to 50 mg each). Caffeine in milk chocolate is about half that of plain chocolate