Pre-Conception and Fertility Nutrition

Pregnant woman in kitchen making salad

This post originally appeared as a guest blog spot on http://kaystotalfitness.blogspot.com/ on 4/6/16 and has been re-published with permission.  It was also featured as a guest blog post under the title “Nutritional Considerations for Pre-Conception and Fertility” on the Feed Your Fertile Body!™ blog on 4/7/16.

I love the springtime.  To me, it’s such a time of renewal and rebirth. That’s when all the animals and plants seem to come back to life after the long, cold winter season.  I always think of baby bunnies hopping around the yard and their prolific fertility.

Speaking of fertility…when we as Americans think of fertility and preparation for having babies, how many of us think about diet? Most people know that age-old advice that as an expecting woman, one is “eating for two.” But what is being eaten? Is it wholesome, nutrient-dense food? Or merely an increase in calories and/or quantity of our day-to-day diet? Is that the healthiest choice?

Many of you have probably heard about the SAD diet in America; SAD being an acronym for the Standard American Diet.  The Standard American Diet is the diet touted by the US Government as being the best nutrition we can eat. The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest 45-65% of our calories should come from carbohydrates, while 20-35% should come from fat and 10-35% should come from protein.  Well, I teach Nutrition, and to me, those numbers are not very pro-health.  If you look at traditional diets, and the diets of typical Americans before the advent of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in the 1970s, we ate far fewer calories from carbohydrates.

As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I typically urge clients to aim for a 40-30-30 ratio when eating; that is, 40% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 30% protein.  30% fat? Isn’t that a lot?  I can hear the questions now…the quick answer is, not really.  Think about the fact that for every gram of fat you consume, it has about 9 calories, so you need a lot less fat by weight than you do of protein or carbohydrates, which only have about 4 calories per gram.  So what that means, is that a half-pound of butter (1 stick or 8 oz, or 226.8 grams) will be a little over twice as many calories (2041.2) as half a pound of protein or carbohydrates (907.2 calories).  And who eats an entire stick of butter in one sitting, anyway?  In other words, eating the same amount of fat by weight makes more calories.  Make sense? That means that if we’re eating a ratio of 30-30-40, we need a lot less fat than you think to achieve that based on calories; it’s actually quite a balanced way to set up your plate and achieve an optimal amount of fat in your diet.

Why are fats so important, anyway? Fat is key to developing healthy hormones.  In fact, every cell membrane is made up of fat! Fat is essential.  It ensures we are absorbing our fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.  Fat is required for proper protein absorption, and also serves as protection for our organs (think “padding”).  Ever run into something with your knee (no padding from fat)? It really hurt, right? What about your hip, where most of us have a little more padding? Not as bad? Fat also helps slow the absorption of food and make us feel full longer.

When was the last time you had a meal without fat (usually cold cereal for breakfast comes to mind) – chances are you were starving a couple of hours later, right? What about if you had bacon and eggs for breakfast? You were probably good to go until lunch, right? Plus, fat just makes food taste better! This whole low-fat, no-fat mantra we’ve all been hearing for years is not only wrong, but dangerous.  Ever known anyone that ate a low-fat diet and had problems conceiving? I’ve known many.  When I see clients, that is one of the first things I ask them – what’s your fat intake like? And what types of fats are you eating? Because both of those questions are very important to determine if they are getting what their body needs to support life.  Fat-free and low-fat foods have the fat removed (along with the flavor it provides) and have to make up for that with other things – usually fillers, sugar and/or salt.  Wouldn’t it just be better to get the flavor from the fat that was there to begin with? I think so! Stop buying fat-free and low-fat yogurt and stick with the whole milk version – it tastes better, has fewer additives, and will sustain you for longer, too!

There are three types of fats: saturated, the most stable of all the fats, which is found in animal products and tropical oils; your body can make this from carbohydrates; monounsaturated fat, also relatively stable, which is found predominately in nut oils like almonds, pecans, cashews and other sources like olive oil and avocado oil; the body can make this from saturated fats; and finally, polyunsaturated fat.  This is considered an unstable fat, and should never be heated or used for cooking.  Think of using this as a finishing oil to use AFTER something is cooked, just to give it some flavor.  It can also be used in cold applications like salad dressing.  Polyunsaturated fats are found in flax seed oil, some nuts, fish and seed oils.

There are two types of fats that are essential, which means we MUST get them from our diet, because our body cannot make them on its own.  They are linoleic acid (aka omega-6) and alpha linolenic acid (aka omega-3).  As I’m sure you’ve heard, salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acid, as are sardines and other oily fish.  Especially in pre-conception and during pregnancy, walnut oil, wheat germ and hemp are also good sources.  Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in sunflower and sesame oil; again, these are the best sources during pre-conception and pregnancy.  Most people get plenty of omega-6 fats in their diet, but are often lacking enough omega-3 fats.  In fact, most people are around 24:1 omega-6:omega-3, and should be more like 3:1 or even 1:1 for a better ratio.

Getting back to nutrition and preparing for children…did you know that so called “primitive” cultures often had a pre-conception fertility diet to ensure healthy mother and offspring? Some started 6 months before marriage (assuming that conception would start shortly after), while others started 6 months before conception.  Typically these cultures would increase the vitamins, minerals, fats and organ meats in the diet for both the mother and father in preparation of children.  Not only that, but the special diet would continue through pregnancy and even after, to provide satisfactory nutrition to the baby while nursing.  These “special foods” were set aside specifically for those in the group/tribe that were preparing to conceive, because they were known to be the best sources of nutrients for a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Here in the United States, we really don’t get much guidance when it comes to pre-conception nutrition.  Usually, it starts when we’ve already conceived:  “Limit your caffeine. Give up smoking. Stop drinking alcohol. Take pre-natal vitamins.” Yes, that is all good advice; and yes, it is best to start that as soon as possible, even before conception.  But does that advice constitute good nutrition?

Here’s what I would love to see instead: eat three to five meals a day, with a good combination of fats, protein and carbohydrates at each meal.  They don’t have to be big meals; eating consistently throughout the day will help balance blood sugar, alleviate cravings and give one steady energy.  This is especially important for anyone dealing with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), because low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets are associated with a higher risk of developing PCOS.

Make sure you’re getting the best nutrition you can afford; ideally, aim for locally grown, organic foods.  If you can only afford to buy one thing organic, invest in organic butter.  I really like Kerry Gold Butter, which is cultured butter from grass-fed cows, high in fat-soluble vitamins thanks to the fresh grass and sunlight.  Toxins are stored in the fats of animals (and humans are an animal, too!), so getting the best sources of fat you can is crucial for a few reasons.  Toxins may be released into the placenta during pregnancy, and into the baby, especially if someone experiences significant weight loss during pregnancy (think: morning sickness).  This is also the case prior to pregnancy – since toxins are released when one loses weight, and if one loses significant weight, those toxins will be released into the blood stream.  If the body is not properly detoxified, those toxins can be reabsorbed into the body and wreak havoc in different body systems.

Get enough sleep! Pregnancy can take a toll on your body, and you won’t get much after baby arrives, so soak it up while you can! This will allow your body time to repair and recover, and you’ll have more energy to get things done the next day, too.  While eating a varied diet can certainly help ensure you have the vitamins and minerals you need, getting a good multi-vitamin certainly doesn’t hurt.  Some good choices that are bio-available forms are Metabolic Maintenance’s FemOne or Vital Nutrients Prenatal.

Even better, join a local pre-conception support group! I am very excited to offer the Feed Your Fertile Body!TM Program just for such support! In this class, which is designed for either couples or singles, you will get step by step recommendations on what to do to prepare for welcoming a baby into your family.  There are pantry clean-outs with recommended swaps, and we even get to try new foods in the group.  I look forward to working with you to address your nutrition needs.

Marie Olson, NTP is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in private practice.  She is the Owner of NutriSimplicity, and specializes in digestion, pre-conception nutrition, Functional Blood Chemistry Analysis and Get at the RootsTM Weight Loss.  She serves as an Adjunct Faculty Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Virginia, where she teaches Nutrition.  You can find her on the web NutriSimplicity

Many of the books and products listed below can be viewed and/or purchased through NutriSimplicity’s Amazon Store (affiliate link).  By purchasing items through my store link, I will earn a small commission at no cost to you.  You are never under any obligation to purchase through my links, but if you choose to do so, the money I earn helps me to maintain my website and bring you more information like this article! So, thank you!

Sources and Suggested Reading:  

Feed Your Fertile Body!™ Participant Workbook, Sara Russell, PhD, NTP, CGP

Mother Food: Food and Herbs that Promote Milk Production for a Mother’s Health by Hilary Jacobson

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price, DDS

Real Plans, Meal Planning Service

Special thanks to Sara Russell, PhD, NTP, CGP of Your Probiotic Kitchen for information about PCOS and Toxins in pre-conception

Super Nutrition for Babies: The Right Way to Feed Your Baby for Optimal Health by Katherine Erlich and Kelly Genzlinger

The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care by Sally Fallon Morell and Thomas S. Cowan

The Nutritional Therapist Training Program, Nutritional Therapy Association