By Elizabeth M Ward, MS, RD
Mother’s Day is over, but motherhood is still on your mind. You may be thinking about having a child, or perhaps you’re already a parent and hope to add to your brood.
Even if you think a new baby is far off in your future, now is the time to start preparing for pregnancy.
Preconception care involves more than taking a daily multivitamin, and other healthy habits, like avoiding cigarettes and alcohol. Yet, prepping for pregnancy is often given short shrift.
In the 10 years between writing my first and second pregnancy nutrition books, scientific evidence has made it clear that how you live your life years before conceiving influences your child’s well-being at birth and beyond. This is particularly true when it comes to Mom’s body weight.
Body Weight Influences Fertility
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight with a balanced diet and regular exercise is one of the most important ways women can help themselves and their future children.
“A healthy body weight makes it easier to get pregnant,” says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, author of The PCOS Diet Plan, A Natural Approach to Health for Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
“If both you and your male partner weigh too much, it could take even longer to conceive than if only one of you needs to shed some pounds,” Wright says.
There also evidence, presented at an international obesity conference in France, that being overweight may make it more difficult for women to conceive by high-tech methods such as in vitro fertilization.
Extra body fat aggravates Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which affects upwards of 10% of U.S. women in their childbearing years and is the No. 1 reason for infertility in women.
Many women with PCOS are overweight. Wright says losing as little as 5% to 7% of your body weight – about nine to 12 pounds for a 175-pound woman – may help increase fertility.
Body Weight and Risk of Birth Defects
In addition to reducing fertility, overweight women at the time of conception are at greater risk for having a pregnancy affected by a structural birth defect, including neural tube defects (NTD).
Many cases of NTD, such as spina bifida, are preventable by consuming at least 400 micrograms a day of folic acid very early in pregnancy. However, studies suggest that an unhealthy body weight may overrule the benefits of adequate folic acid in mom’s diet.
Extra Pounds and Pregnancy Complications
Women who start pregnancy overweight are more likely to have complications during pregnancy and delivery, which may pose a danger to mom and baby.
Carrying around extra pounds makes you prone to gestational diabetes, which is a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy.
“The extra glucose in your blood can make for a larger baby that is more difficult to deliver and may require a Cesarean delivery,” Wright says.
Gestational diabetes has lasting effects on your child, too: Larger babies at birth run a greater risk of becoming overweight and developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Being overweight at the time of conception raises the risk of developing pregnancy-induced hypertension.
High blood pressure during pregnancy can be serious because it prevents the adequate flow of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your baby by narrowing or constricting blood vessels in the uterus, and affects your child’s development.
Healthy Weight for Moms-to-Be
Determining your body mass index (BMI) is the most accurate way to know if your weight is within a healthy range. BMI indicates body fat based on a (nonpregnant) adult’s height and weight. (You can check your BMI here.)
A healthy BMI range is 19-24.9. If you are underweight or overweight and need help with your diet, you may want to consult a registered dietitian (RD) to help you improve your preconception eating and exercise plan. You can get a free referral to a RD in your area here.
Once you’re pregnant, your obstetrician or certified nurse-midwife will advise you about how much weight to gain depending on your prepregnancy BMI.