Many women do not get adequate nutrition before, during or after pregnancy. Studies have shown a positive correlation between a healthy diet during the preconception period and improved birth outcomes and the overall health of the child. The period of early conception – between three and seven weeks after the last missed menstrual period – is crucial and includes the formation of most of the fetus' organs. Adequate levels of folic acid and other nutrients before and during early conception are crucial for healthy fetal development.
Folic acid – called folate when found naturally in food – is a water-soluble B vitamin required for DNA synthesis and cell division. It is currently recognized as one of the most important preconception nutrients due to its link to a decrease in neural tube defects. The U.S. Public Health Service recommends taking 400 micrograms of folic acid each day if you are trying to or could possibly become pregnant to reduce the risk of brain and spine disorders such as spina bifida.
Folic Acid Deficieny Risks
Neural tube defects aren't the only potential birth defects which can be caused by a lack of folic acid during early conception. According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, a preconception deficiency of folic acid can also cause heart and limb defects, urinary tract abnormalities, narrowing of the lower stomach valve and oral-facial clefts. Taking a multivitamin with an adequate quantity of folic acid is a smart and savvy choice for any woman who could become pregnant, even if you're not actively trying to conceive.
Food Suggestions for Folate
The highest food source of folate, according to the National Institutes of Health, is beef liver, with 215 micrograms – or 54 percent of the RDA – in a 3-ounce portion. If liver just isn't your thing, eating half a cup of cooked spinach provides you with 131 micrograms – or 33 percent of the RDA – while eating half a cup of boiled black-eyed peas supplies 26 percent of the RDA – 105 micrograms. A fruit salad with half a cup of cubed papaya, one small orange or one banana provides 20 micrograms of folate – or 5 percent of the RDA. Eating plenty of folate-rich foods like dark green leafy vegetables, citrus, legumes and whole grains is a great idea if you might become pregnant.
Other Important Nutrients
Folic acid is tremendously important in preventing birth defects, but it isn't the only important preconception nutrient. Getting enough vitamins A, C, B-6 and E as well as calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium are all important to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby. Zinc, in particular, is also important for couples who are trying to conceive, as it has been shown to improve fertility in both men and women. Limiting your consumption of processed and pre-made foods is one way to support adequate preconception nutrition. A diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and dairy products is a smart choice for women who want to conceive or for those who are at risk of unplanned pregnancy.
- American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: The Clinical Content of Preconception Care: Nutrition and Dietary Supplements;
- Yale School of Medicine: Nutrition Before Pregnancy
- Office of Dietary Supplements: National Institutes of Health: Folate
- American Pregnancy Association: Preconception Nutrition
- The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada: Folic Acid: For Preconception and Pregnancy
Amy Myszko is a certified clinical herbalist and nutritional consultant who has been helping people find greater health and balance through diet, lifestyle and natural remedies since 2006. She received her certification from the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism in Boulder, Colo. Myszko also holds a BA in literature from the University of Colorado.