How Can I Optimize my Diet while Trying to get Pregnant?

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 6 minutes

What should I know about what to eat while trying to conceive?

  • Learn the benefits of a healthy preconception weight

  • Note specific nutrients to focus on before (and during) pregnancy

  • Recognize potentially unsafe substances to eliminate from your diet prior to conception

Fine tuning your eating habits and optimizing the quality of your diet is beneficial for all women trying to get pregnant.39 In fact, as early as the first 8 weeks of pregnancy (often before many moms even know they are pregnant), most of your baby’s organs and body systems are already being developed.2 Optimizing your diet prior to conception will help your body prepare to grow a healthy baby, as well as help meet the increased nutrient demands to support a healthy pregnancy.3

Read on for more information about important nutrients and ways to help reach your pre-pregnancy nutrition goals.

Preconception Weight

Tuning-up your diet and achieving a healthy preconception weight can have numerous benefits that may help support a healthy pregnancy.1,5

While women of all weights can successfully get pregnant, being underweight or obese may cause irregular menstrual cycles and ovulation, making it more difficult to conceive.4 A healthy pre-pregnancy weight is also associated with a lower risk of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.5,29

What Nutrients are Important During Preconception and Pregnancy?

Changing your diet in healthful ways prior to conception not only gives your nutrition a boost, but also supports healthier eating habits during pregnancy. While the amount of food (and calories) you need to consume prior to conception and in the first trimester does not actually increase, your nutrient needs do.6

Satisfy these increased nutrient needs by eating high-quality foods (think whole, minimally processed foods). So, while it may be tempting to “eat for two,” instead try “thinking for two” and upgrade your dietary choices without overdoing your total calorie intake.

Here are some of the nutrients to focus on while trying to get pregnant:

Folate: Healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with neural tube defects.7 The neural tube becomes your baby’s brain and spinal cord.8

Folate is especially critical during the first trimester so make sure you’re getting enough from the start of your pregnancy, and ideally, for several months before you conceive.

Food sources of folate: Find folate in many foods such as vegetables (especially dark leafy green veggies), fruits, nuts, beans, dairy, and meat.30

Iron: During pregnancy, you need extra iron to help your body make more blood to supply oxygen to your baby.9 And your baby will build iron stores in the womb that will last for about the first six months of life.10 Too little iron during pregnancy may have an impact on your baby’s development and could lead to anemia for you.11

Food sources of iron: Find iron in beef, white beans, eggs, spinach, lentils, and fortified grains.37

Your body absorbs iron best from plant sources if taken with a good source of vitamin C (for example, pair iron-rich cereal with strawberries, or beans with tomatoes).26

Calcium: Although your calcium needs do not increase during pregnancy, calcium is still important for your own health and for your baby’s bone and teeth development.12 Make sure you are getting adequate amounts, otherwise your body may take the calcium from your bones to meet your baby’s needs, which can put you at risk for osteoporosis.13

Food sources of calcium: Low-fat dairy, dark leafy greens, tofu, baked beans, almonds, sardines, sesame seeds and figs all contain calcium. Many cereals are fortified with calcium too, so check the labels.31

Zinc: Zinc is essential for tissue growth, which your baby will be doing a lot of!14

Food sources of zinc: Meat, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy.32

Vitamin D: Vitamin D works with calcium to help your growing fetus develop strong bones and teeth.15

Food sources of vitamin D: It can be difficult to reach the recommended amount of vitamin D from diet alone, but the best sources are fish, fortified dairy products, and fortified plant-based milk alternatives.33

Iodine: Iodine is essential for the thyroid (both yours and your baby’s once it’s formed).16 Many women don’t get enough iodine because not only are people now turning to sea salt, which is not fortified with iodine, rather than using iodized salt, but also much of our sodium intake comes from processed foods and fast foods made with non-iodized salt.17

Food sources of iodine: Seafood, dairy, and iodized salt are your best sources for iodine.34

Choline: Choline is truly critical during preconception and pregnancy.18 Your body can’t make it so you will need to rely on food or supplements to ingest the proper amount.18 Like folate, it helps develop the neural tube, which becomes your baby’s brain and spinal cord.19

Food sources of choline: Eggs, beef, salmon, and quinoa are all great sources of choline.35

Essential fatty acids (EFAs): EFAs are polyunsaturated fats considered “essential” because of the body’s inability to produce these important nutrients on its own.20 EFAs come in 2 groups: omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids, each with its own subgroups.20

Omega 3 fatty acids are especially important for optimal fetal, infant, and early childhood growth but most Americans tend to have diets low in omega 3’s.21 DHA, EPA, and ALA make up the family of omega 3s. DHA is the major omega 3 involved in the development of the brain, nervous system, and retina.21

In contrast, omega 6 fatty acids are consumed regularly in the typical American diet since they primarily come from plant oils, which are used in many processed foods.22

Food sources of EPA and DHA: Cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, herring, anchovies, and trout.36

Food sources of ALA: vegetable, soybean, and canola oils; flaxseeds; walnuts; and grass-fed meat.36

While there are other benefits to eating ALA-rich foods, our bodies don’t get direct omega 3s from ALA, instead we have to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. So, unless you’re vegan or a vegetarian who doesn’t eat animal products, fish is the best source of omega 3s.36

Food sources of omega 6 fatty acids: Canola, flaxseed, corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean. You can add some of these plant oils in your salad dressings and while cooking so that you are getting adequate omega 6s.22

Read more: Which Nutrients Do I Need During Pregnancy?

To chat more about ways to incorporate these nutrients in your diet, reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am - 6pm (ET), and Saturday – Sunday 8am - 2pm (ET). Chat Now!

What are the best ways to eat healthier while trying to get pregnant?

Talk to your health care provider about taking a prenatal vitamin

In addition to following a healthy eating plan, taking a prenatal vitamin can help ensure you are meeting your daily nutritional requirements for vitamins and minerals. Chat with your health care provider to ask if a prenatal supplement is right for you.

Find out what a healthy preconception weight is for you by speaking to your healthcare provider

The recommendations for weight gain during pregnancy are based on your pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI).23 Calculate your BMI by dividing your pre-pregnancy weight in kilograms by your height in meters, squared (or just use an online BMI calculator).

Note that BMI calculations offer helpful guidelines but are not perfect indicators of healthy weight, so always talk with your healthcare provider.

Here’s is a guide to the BMI categories:

  • BMI of below 18.5 = underweight

  • BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 = normal weight

  • BMI of 25 to 29.9 = overweight

  • BMI of 30 or greater = obese23

Learn more: Why Does Your Pre-Pregnancy Weight Matter?

Use preconception to develop healthy eating and lifestyle habits that will carry you through pregnancy and beyond

The Dietary Guidelines, which emphasizes choosing healthy foods in appropriate relative proportions, is a great tool for promoting healthy habits that will optimize health. It recommends filling half of your plate with vegetables and fruit, one-fourth of your plate with whole grains, and one-fourth of your plate with lean protein.24

Other important considerations are choosing healthy fats (like those found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado), emphasizing water, and getting adequate physical activity.

Eliminate potentially dangerous substances once you start trying to conceive

Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and second- and third-hand smoke should be avoided during pregnancy.27 Because most women don’t know exactly when they become pregnant, it’s best to avoid these products if you are trying to conceive to optimize your baby’s (and your) health.

Work toward decreasing your caffeine intake as well. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends limiting your caffeine intake to no more than 200mg per day while pregnant. Depending on your mug size, that’s approximately the amount of caffeine found in 1-2 cups of coffee.28

Remember to add up all sources of caffeine — from food, beverages, and medications — to make sure that you’re not exceeding the 200mg per day recommendation.

Read more: Can I have Caffeine while Pregnant and Breastfeeding?

Make sure you are getting enough essential fatty acids

To get enough of these beneficial fats, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends eating 8 to 12 ounces of low mercury fattier fish per week.38 To help boost your intake, especially if you do not eat much fish, choose grass-fed beef (if you consume red meat), walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flax seeds.

Also include plant oils such as canola, soybean, and sunflower to get your omega 6s.

Speak with your healthcare provider about whether taking an omega-3 supplement is important for you.

Choose your fish wisely

Fish is an important source of several high-quality nutrients, from protein to essential fatty acids.

While trying to get pregnant, it may be important to avoid or minimize fish recognized as having high amounts of methylmercury, like shark, Bigeye tuna, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. Instead, aim to eat 8 to 12 ounces each week of these lower mercury fish: salmon, canned light tuna, cod, shrimp, tilapia, crab, flounder, scallops, and sardines.38

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Healthy and Easy Postpartum Snacks

How Much Should I Eat While Pregnant?

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy