Preparing the body for conception and pregnancy is an important time in a woman’s life. From eating healthily to addressing weight issues, there are lots of factors to consider in giving your baby-to-be the best chances of being born healthy. Knowing which foods to avoid is also an important factor when making dietary changes. This article explains the foods and drinks to avoid and limit when trying to conceive.
Liver and supplements containing vitamin A
Avoid liver and liver-containing products, e.g. patés and liver sausage, because they are very high in the retinol form of vitamin A. High levels vitamin A may be harmful for a developing baby, and since your body stores this vitamin, it’s best to avoid it whilst trying to conceive.
Vitamin A is also found in milk, cheese, oily fish, fruits and vegetables, but these are fine to eat because they contain carotenoids, a different form of vitamin A safe for pre-conception and pregnancy (and safe levels of retinol). You should avoid taking nutritional supplements containing vitamin A, such as standard multivitamin tablets or cod liver oil. If you want to take a supplement in addition to vitamin D supplements, choose a pre-conception or pregnancy multivitamin tablet; these don’t contain vitamin A.
Raw and undercooked meats, fish and eggs
Choose well-cooked meats and fish during pre-conception, and avoid raw / cured meat or fish, e.g. parma ham, sushi and smoked salmon. Eggs should be well-cooked, which means no more dippy eggs or runny yolks! Steer clear of products made with raw eggs, such as homemade mayonnaise, homemade icecream and mousses. Avoiding these foods in pre-conception is important because they may contain harmful bacteria, e.g. listeria, salmonella and E.coli, which could be dangerous for the tiny new embryo at conception.
Unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses
Avoid unpasteurised milk, cheese and yoghurts, as they could carry dangerous infections, and threaten the chance of new life beginning. Also avoid soft and mould-ripened cheeses, e.g. ricotta, brie, camembert and blue veined cheeses. Hard cheeses, e.g. cheddar and edam are fine providing they’re pasteurised (check the label if worried).
Swordfish, shark and marlin
If you like your seafood, it’s best to avoid swordfish, shark and marlin. These fish contain potentially high levels of mercury, which are unsafe for a developing baby’s nervous system. Because a baby’s nervous system starts developing around week 3 of pregnancy, (before you even know you’re pregnant), it’s best to avoid these.
It’s best to avoid all alcohol whilst trying to conceive, especially if you’re having difficulty conceiving. A study in 1998 found that fertility was decreased even among women who drank five or less alcoholic drinks a week. The Department of Health recommends that if women choose to drink alcohol, limit it to 1-2 units once or twice a week.
Foods and drinks to limit when trying to conceive
- Tuna – as a precaution during pre-conception, limit tuna to no more than 2 tuna steaks (1 portion = 140g cooked weight) or 4 cans of tuna a week. This is to prevent the potential build up of mercury in your body and prevent damaging a baby’s fragile developing nervous system.
- Caffeine – pre-conception is a great time to start reducing caffeine intake. Caffeine may reduce fertility and contribute to increased risk of miscarriage, so it’s best to limit to 200mg of caffeine per day. This equates to 2 mugs of instant coffee, 2 ½ mugs of tea, 5 cans of cola or 2 cans of ‘energy drink’. Another reason to cut back is that tea and coffee can also reduce the body’s absorption of iron and other nutrients.
Jensen TK et al (1998) Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility? Follow up study among couples planning first pregnancy. BMJ. 317:505.
Webster-Gandy et al (2011) Oxford Handbook of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.