A healthy pregnancy doesn’t just fall from the sky. It takes planning and prep work to make something so beautiful come together under ideal circumstances. Think of it like tilling the soil. Our incredible bodies, when nourished thoughtfully, can become nutrient-rich breeding grounds for well, breeding.
When we asked Rachel Swanson, MS, RD, LDN, for her advice, she confirmed: “For those trying to get pregnant—it’s never too early to start eating as if you already are.” Rachel is not only a registered dietitian, but also the founder of her nutrition consulting practice where she develops personalized treatment plans for cardiometabolic health, longevity practices, weight loss, disease prevention, and optimal maternal-fetal outcomes. She’s the go-to woman for optimizing life via food.
Folate-rich foods (vitamin B9)
If you’ve ever glanced at a prenatal supplement package, you’re familiar with folate. “Zooming in, folate’s job is actually pretty simple,” Rachel tells us. “It shuttles single carbon atoms from one compound to another. But zoom out a bit, and you’ll see this ‘simple’ task is involved in something much larger: DNA replication and protein assembly. That’s why it’s so critical to take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid when you’re trying to get pregnant; deficiency can cause defects very early on, such as in the case of spina bifida and anencephaly.”
These birth defects are major—they affect the spine and brain tissue and can impact your baby’s quality of life. “The neural tube closes early in pregnancy, often before many women even know that they’re pregnant,” Rachel explains.
“This vitamin doesn’t just help prevent neural tube defects; it appears extra folate may also improve chances of getting pregnant—and staying pregnant (reduced risk of miscarriage). Along with supplementing folic acid, foods rich in folate are also key. Low folate status is a risk factor for subfertility, whereas a high intake of folate has been shown as protective.
Folate is naturally found in foliage. Green leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and mustard greens are great sources. Beans like edamame as well as lentils and avocado are also rich sources.”
Polyunsaturated fats: omega-3s
“Higher intakes of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats have been shown to yield reproductive benefits in both women and men.
The richest source of these omega-3 fats is fish. You’ll want to select among those that contain the highest amounts of omega-3 but are also low in mercury. For best choices, remember the acronym SMASH: sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring. Aim to include two to three servings of these choices in your diet each week—a regimen you’ll want to continue once you’re pregnant, too, for your future child’s mental and behavioral development.
For those not fond of eating fish at this frequency (and even for those who do), I recommend supplementing your intake with a high-quality fish oil supplement.
For vegetarians or vegans who are not willing to take fish oil, microalgae oil containing DHA is the next best option. While I typically recommend a food-first approach, the vegan/plant-based sources of omega-3s (e.g. walnuts, flaxseeds) are in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These ALA precursors have a very low conversion into DHA and EPA (widely believed to be between 0.5%-5% at most). These food sources are incredibly healthy and should remain an integral part of your diet—but it’s for this reason that I recommend boosting DHA and EPA through additional supplementation.”
There are a lot of diet fads out there. Moreover, there is a lot of research that proves certain diet patterns have profound effects on our health—especially women. Eating for weight loss, hormonal health, muscle gain, brain health … the list goes on. But Rachel feels that given the polarity of diet culture these days, it is most important to focus on what she deems “the common denominators between these dietary patterns.” This way, the recommendations can apply no matter what diet pattern we choose to follow.
One commonality between diets shown to be beneficial for fertility is eating a high level of monounsaturated fats (as opposed to a higher intake of saturated and/or trans fat), as explained by Rachel.
“Luckily, there are many sources of monounsaturated fat that can be integrated into your diet on a daily basis. If I had to choose only one, I recommend making high-quality extra virgin olive oil a daily dietary staple. Other good sources of monounsaturated fat include avocado, as well as nuts and seeds.”
Low glycemic-load (GL) carbohydrates
We constantly think of carbs as the devil when it comes to any of our wellness goals, but the truth is, they are vital. It’s complicated, though. We’re hanging on to Rachel’s breakdown:
“If you’re trying to get pregnant, I also recommend taking into consideration the main sources of carbohydrates you’re consuming.
For fertility, it’s not about the amount of carbohydrates in your diet, it’s about the quality of those carbohydrate choices. Eating a lot of rapidly digested carbohydrates that continually cause elevations in your blood sugar and insulin level can lower your chances of getting pregnant. On the other hand, eating slowly digestible carbohydrates (see examples below) can improve ovulation and chances of getting pregnant.
Glycemic load (GL) is a measure that takes this into consideration. If you’re vaguely familiar with the glycemic index, think of GL as its cousin. It conveys information about both the number of carbohydrates in the diet and how quickly they turn into blood sugar. The higher the GL, the more rapidly digestible the carbs are. Eating a lot of these rapidly digested carbs increases the odds of ovulatory infertility.
Instead, sources of carbohydrates that reduce the impact on blood sugar and insulin (low GL carbs) should become the mainstay. The added advantage is that these lower GL choices come naturally packaged with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Focus on the principle—not on any one specific food, or the exact GL ranking. Just remember that generally speaking, the higher the fiber and less refined (less processed) the carbohydrate is, the better it will be. For example:
• High GL food choices: conventional breakfast cereals, white rice, potatoes, white bread, bagels, pastries, fruit juice, refined pasta.
• Low GL food choices: leafy green vegetables (like the folate-rich choices mentioned above), cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and various fruits like grapefruit.
Clinical tip: pair these low GL carbs with unsaturated fats (like those mentioned in the above sections) for added fertility benefits.”
Protein: consider a flexitarian approach
“When it comes to the discussion on fertility, meeting in the middle ground seems to be the most beneficial when it comes to protein. That is, get your daily protein from as many different sources as you can. If you consume animal protein on a daily basis, replacing a few servings with plant protein seems particularly beneficial for lowering the risk of ovulatory infertility. And of course, when you do eat meat: organic, pasture-raised picks are always superior compared to conventionally raised livestock. On the other hand, if your diet is one that avoids animal protein altogether, consider at a minimum adding omega-3 rich fish to your diet, such as those described above.”
If pregnancy is in your not-so-distant future, start paving the way for it by adopting these foods into your diet ASAP. They are amazing for regulating hormones and glowing skin, to boot.
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