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Baby & child.

15 October 2021

Trying to conceive: what should you eat and drink?

Diet and nutrition is an important part of getting your body match-fit when trying for a baby. Here's how to do it
Martha Roberts

What you choose to eat and drink when you’re trying to get pregnant is a crucial part of getting yourself ready for pregnancy and even increasing your odds of conceiving. 

Read on for expert advice on what you should and shouldn't eat in order to conceive – plus we debunk some popular myths about trying for a baby. 

Foods to eat when trying for a baby

A healthy balanced diet 

Bahee Van de Bor, specialist paediatric dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson, says: 'Overall diet is important when you're trying to conceive. You don't need to follow a special diet, but do make sure that you are eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.'

It's worth knowing that half of all pregnancies are unplanned, so if you're not yet pregnant but vaguely considering it (or know it could be a possibility), it's worth being cautious by avoiding potentially risky foods and choosing nutritious choices to support you instead.

Van de Bor adds: 'If a woman suspects she might be pregnant and has experienced previous miscarriages or is participating in IVF, then she might want to be more cautious.'

The British Nutrition Foundation says that women who are trying for a baby are advised to eat a diet that's similar to that recommended for the general population (including five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with three preferably being vegetables). Foods to include are:

Iron-rich foods

During pregnancy, extra iron is needed to support the growth and development of the fetus, the growth of the placenta and the growth in the number of red blood cells required when you're expecting. 

You are advised to eat plenty of high iron foods, including red meat (such as lamb and beef), pulses, nuts, eggs, green leafy vegetables, wholemeal bread, dried fruit and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Eating vitamin C-containing foods at the same time will help the body to absorb more iron, while drinking tea and coffee may have the opposite effect.

Some women may benefit from extra iron when they are trying to conceive. For example, research suggests that conception rates may increase for women who have heavy periods or menstruate more frequently due to shorter cycle length if they have more iron in their diet.

If you think you might be low in iron, speak to your GP.

Meat and other protein sources

Meat is rich in protein to help provide you with the building blocks needed for conception and growing a healthy baby.

Animal products such as chicken, pork and beef are fine to eat as long as they have been cooked thoroughly with no trace of pink flesh or blood. The NHS recommends that you are especially careful with poultry, pork, burgers and sausages.

Pre-packed meats such as ham and corned beef are also fine to eat.

British Lion mark eggs 

Eggs are also a great source of protein. However, when you're trying to conceive or are pregnant, you should buy eggs that have the British Lion mark on them. 

These eggs adhere to strict hygiene and welfare standards and are therefore safe to eat, whether fully cooked, lightly cooked or raw.

Most shop-bought mayonnaise and dressings from large retailers are safe to eat because they contain pasteurised eggs but check the labels if you're unsure.


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Fish

Women trying to get pregnant are encouraged to eat at least two portions of fish per week, incorporating both oily fish and white fish. A portion is around 140g when cooked.

Oily fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which are needed for the development of the central nervous system, brain and the retina of the fetus, and white fish is good source of nutrients including protein.

The guidelines for those trying to get pregnant are: 

  • Up to two portions of oily fish a week This includes salmon, trout, mackerel and herring, and smoked varieties such as smoked salmon and trout. 
  • There is no cap on white fish However, women who are trying to conceive should limit their consumption of either fresh or canned tuna – both categorised as non-oily fish – and certain types of white fish (listed in the 'Foods to avoid when trying for a baby' section), because they contain mercury or pollutants. 

The NHS says it's also fine to eat cooked shellfish such as mussels, lobster, crab, prawns, scallops and clams, as well as cold pre-cooked prawns.

Sushi or other raw or lightly cooked fish in dishes is also allowed as long as any raw wild fish used to make it has been frozen first to kill any parasites.

Dairy products

Shefalee Loth, Which? nutritionist, says: 'Dairy foods are a key source of calcium in our diets which is important when trying to conceive and during pregnancy as it helps a baby's bones develop. Dairy is also a good source of protein and other important nutrients such as iodine.'

When you're trying to conceive, you're fine to have pasteurised milk and cream, as well as yoghurts sold in UK shops, supermarkets and restaurants. 

Hard pasteurised cheeses, such as cheddar and parmesan, plus soft pasteurised cheeses, such as cottage cheese, mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, paneer and goat's cheese without a white rind on the outside are also fine to eat, as are soft unpasteurised cheeses if they have been cooked thoroughly until they are steaming. 

If you are drinking non-dairy, plant-based alternatives to milk, the BDA recommends that you choose one that has been fortified with calcium and iodine.

Water and other drinks

Keeping well-hydrated is important if you're trying to conceive and during pregnancy. 

As well as water, there are a range of beverages that count towards the six to eight medium (200ml) glasses of fluid we should be having each day.

These include hot drinks such as decaffeinated tea and coffee, fruit teas, fresh fruit juice (one glass a day) semi-skimmed or whole milk or plant-based milk.


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Foods to avoid when trying for a baby

Liver and liver products

Although vitamin A is essential for the development of the fetus (along with other key nutrients), large amounts consumed during pregnancy are linked to a higher risk of birth defects.

As a result of this, if you're trying to get pregnant, you're advised not to eat liver or liver products, such as pâté, because these can be rich in vitamin A. For the same reason you're also advised not to take vitamin A supplements, cod liver oil supplements or multivitamin supplements containing vitamin A.

Shark, swordfish and marlin

Although fish can form part of a nutritious diet for those who are trying to conceive, certain fish should be left off the menu:

  • Shark, swordfish and marlin contain high levels of mercury so should be avoided altogether. 
  • Raw shellfish poses a food poisoning risk.
  • Raw or lightly cooked wild fish such as sea trout caught at sea or in UK rivers, as well as wild Atlantic salmon, can sometimes contain parasitic worms and bacteria, so shouldn't be eaten unless they've been frozen or cooked before eating.

Women trying for a baby shouldn't eat more than four medium-sized cans of tuna (140g when drained) or two fresh tuna steaks (each around 140g cooked or 170g raw) each week because the mercury in these could cause harm to an unborn child's nervous system. 

There are also certain types of white fish which may contain similar levels of pollutants as oily fish and should therefore only be eaten occasionally, namely sea bream, sea bass, turbot, halibut and rock salmon. 

Alcohol

If you are planning a pregnancy, the UK's Chief Medical Officer says the safest strategy is to not drink alcohol at all in order to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. 

A 2021 study reported in the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology concluded that women who want to conceive should avoid heavy drinking and that in the second half of the menstrual cycle even moderate drinking is linked to reduced chances of pregnancy.  

Not only that, but high intakes of alcohol are linked to a greater risk of miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy. 

If you're been drinking before you knew you were pregnant, the risk of harm to your baby is likely to be low but once you know you're pregnant you should avoid alcohol from that point onwards. This is because it isn't possible to identify a threshold level of safe alcohol consumption from the evidence that's available.

High caffeine content food and drinks

Consuming a lot of caffeine has been linked to infertility, miscarriage and your baby having a low birth weight, according to pregnancy and birth charity Tommy's. 

Although you don't need to avoid it altogether when you're trying to get pregnant, caffeine should be limited to 200mg per day for both women and men – that is around two mugs of instant coffee or three mugs of tea.

However, if you occasionally consume more than this, don't worry as the risks are very small.

There is also caffeine in high energy drinks, green tea and some cold and flu remedies so watch out for these sources, too. 

Unpasteurised dairy

Soft cheeses that have been mould-ripened (identifiable by their white rind on the outside) such as brie and camembert should be avoided if you're trying to conceive, just in case you're eating them before you even know you are pregnant.

The same goes for soft blue cheeses – such as Danish blue and Roquefort, unless cooked until steaming hot – and any unpasteurised cow's milk, goat's milk or sheep's milk or cheeses made from them.

This is because unpasteurised products may contain listeria, which can cause listeriosis infection that can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth. 

The white coating on the outside of these cheeses contain higher levels of moisture than other cheeses, which is why it's easier for bacteria to grow.


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How else can you prepare for getting pregnant?

Take a folic acid supplement

Van de Bor says: ‘If you are trying to have a baby, it's really important to start taking your folic acid supplements. Women planning for pregnancy need 400mcg per day every day before you are pregnant and until 12 weeks of pregnancy.’ 

Folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida, where the fetus' spinal cord doesn’t form normally.

If you get pregnant unexpectedly and haven’t been taking folic acid, don’t worry – just start taking it as soon as you find out.

The UK government announced in September 2021 that folic acid is to be added to UK non-wholemeal wheat flour in a bid to help prevent spinal birth defects. This is because around half of all pregnancies are unplanned and therefore expectant mums might not have been taking a folic acid supplement in the essential early days of pregnancy.

However, experts say it is still important to take a 400mcg folic acid supplement if you are trying to get pregnant and during early pregnancy, even if you are eating foods fortified with folic acid. 

If there's a history of neural tube defects in your family, or if you have diabetes or are taking anti-epilepsy medication, you may need to take a higher dose of 5mg. Talk to your doctor about this.

Take a vitamin D supplement

Van de Bor says: 'Vitamin D is another important but overlooked vitamin. Make sure you take at least 10mcg of vitamin D per day to promote the normal development of strong bones, teeth and muscles in your baby.' 

This is particularly the case in the autumn and winter. 

Vitamin D is available in all kinds of forms, from tablets through to sprays and gummies.

Quit smoking

Pregnancy and birth charity Tommy’s says that most women who have regular unprotected sex (every two to three days) will be pregnant within a year, but for women who smoke the chances of getting pregnant are cut by almost half each month.

Smoking during pregnancy has also been linked to miscarriage. 

Contact NHS Smokefree for free help, support and advice on quitting.

Check your medicines

Not all medicines can be taken when you are planning a pregnancy or are actually pregnant. This is the case for some prescription or over-the-counter medications, as well as some supplements and herbal .

Check with your doctor or pharmacist if what you’re taking is safe when you’re trying to conceive. They will be able to tell you if you need to switch to another type. 

You can also look on the bumps (best use of medicines in pregnancy) website. 

Get a flu vaccine

When you are pregnant, you’re less able to fight off infections so being vaccinated against flu can help to keep you well.

The NHS says there is good evidence that pregnant women have a higher chance of developing complications if they get flu and this in turn can impact their baby, which might be born prematurely, have a low birthweight or, in some cases, be stillborn.

If it is the season when flu jabs are being offered (usually around September) and you are trying to get pregnant, speak to your GP surgery or pharmacist about getting the flu jab

Before you get pregnant it is also worth checking to see if you've had your MMR (rubella) jab.

Most people in the UK have already had the MMR (rubella) jab but if you haven’t and choose to have it before you conceive, you should avoid getting pregnant for one month after being jabbed.

Not sure whether to get the Covid-19 vaccine? From August 2021, pregnant women have been advised to have the Covid vaccine because of a rise in the number of pregnant women being hospitalised and experiencing serious Covid symptoms when they haven’t been jabbed.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says: 'Women trying to become pregnant do not need to avoid pregnancy after vaccination.' There is also no evidence to suggest that Covid vaccines affect fertility.


Find out more about what the experts are saying about the Covid vaccine and pregnancy. 


Diet and food when trying to conceive: myths and facts

Myth: You need to 'eat for two'

The British Nutrition Foundation says pregnant women only need to eat an extra 200 calories a day during the third trimester. You certainly don't need to eat more in preparation for getting pregnant. 

Van de Bor says: 'You need to be a healthy weight to conceive.' Pregnancy charity Tommy's says that reaching the ideal BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 also helps with fertility – in other words, ideally you shouldn't weight either too much or too little. 

Keeping active and eating well can help you get to a healthy body weight which should help you to conceive. Up your exercise levels to get fit for pregnancy by creating a home gym and investing in a fitness tracker

Myth: What you eat can influence the sex of your baby

Some people believe that what you eat when you're trying for a baby can help to determine whether you have a boy or a girl.

A 2010 study found that women who ate a diet that was high in magnesium and calcium had a greater chance of conceiving a girl while another study from 2008 discovered that women who consumed higher calories were more likely to have boys. 

However, these are seen as 'associations' rather than actual scientific links.

Van de Bor says: 'There's no evidence to suggest that your diet influences the sex of the baby.'

Myth: There are specific foods that can boost your fertility

There are many myths and old wives' tales about how eating certain foods can boost fertility, like pineapples aiding embryo implantation or protein shakes improving egg quality, but Van de Bor says there is no evidence for specific foods helping. 

However, she says that the Mediterranean diet is linked with good health and may be beneficial for fertility. 

'This diet is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil, with moderate intakes of meat, dairy and alcohol. In terms of male fertility, foods rich in vitamin c, zinc, iron, folate, selenium as well as oily fish can help improve sperm quality,' says Van de Bor.

Fact: Seeing a nutritionist might increase your chances of conception

One in seven heterosexual couples in the UK suffer from infertility and a quarter of these cases are 'unexplained'. If you are having trouble conceiving you might want to consider seeing a registered dietitian for help.

Van de Bor says: 'If you have been struggling to conceive, working with a registered dietitian specialising in maternal health or fertility will help you, particularly if you also suffer from PCOS or endometriosis.  

'It's important that both future parents work with the dietitian to review any potential gaps in their diet.'

Fact: A low GI (glycaemic index) diet might help some women conceive

Van de Bor says: 'A lower GI diet has been shown to improve fertility. Lower GI foods are wholegrain pasta, sweet potatoes, oats, basmati rice, dairy and fruit. Simply swap higher GI foods for these foods as part of a balanced diet.'

The GIycaemic index (GI) gives a score to a carbohydrate food based on how it makes your blood sugar rise. Foods are put on a scale of zero to 100 with sugar being given a value of 100. 

The lower the food's GI the slower your blood sugar rises after eating that food.

If your diet has lots of high GI foods in it, it can increase insulin levels which in turn can increase testosterone levels and upset the balance of female hormones needed for fertility. 


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