Can eating healthy before pregnancy prevent birth defects?

The foods you eat provide nutrients that are important to help you be healthy before and during pregnancy. Nutrients are parts of food, like vitamins and minerals that help your body stay healthy.

Before you get pregnant, it’s a good idea to have a preconception checkup. It helps your health care provider make sure you’re healthy and that your body is ready for pregnancy. Your health care provider also will talk to you about what you should eat to help you have a healthy pregnancy.

How much folic acid do you need before getting pregnant?

Folic acid is a vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. If you take folic acid before pregnancy and during early pregnancy, it can help protect your baby from birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (NTDs) and birth defects of the mouth called cleft lip and palate.

To help prevent birth defects, take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid in it every day at least 1 month before pregnancy through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you’re at high risk for having a baby with an NTD, talk to your provider about taking extra folic acid. Your provider may recommend you to take 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day 3 months before you get pregnant through 12 weeks of pregnancy.

You also can get folic acid in food. When folic acid is naturally in food, it’s called folate. Foods that are good sources of folate are:

  • Beans, like lentils, pinto beans, and black beans
  • Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and Romaine lettuce
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Peanuts
  • Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
  • Berries
  • Orange juice (100% juice is best)

Folic acid is the manmade form of folate that is in fortified and enriched foods and vitamin supplements. Fortified and enriched means a food has added nutrients, like folic acid. Look for the word “fortified” or “enriched” on labels on foods like:

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Cornmeal
  • Flour
  • Pasta
  • Some products made from a kind of flour called corn masa, like tortillas, tortilla chips, taco shells, tamales and pupusas
  • White rice

What other nutrients are important before pregnancy?

It is important to eat nutrient-dense foods that contain a variety of vitamins and minerals to help prevent birth defects, including:

  • Choline. Choline will help your baby’s brain and spinal cord develop correctly. It’s recommended that women get 425 milligrams a day before getting pregnant. Without enough choline, your baby may develop NTDs or cognitive issues. Sources of choline include egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, milk, poultry, pork, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, and nuts.
  • Iodine. Iodine is a nutrient that your body needs during pregnancy to make thyroid hormones that help your baby’s bones and nerves develop. It is recommended that women get 150 micrograms of iodine a day before getting pregnant. Without enough iodine, your baby may have brain issues. Sources of iodine include table salt (with iodine added to it), seaweed, saltwater fish, seafood, some dairy products, and fortified cereal and bread.
  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D will help your baby’s bones and teeth grow. All women, including pregnant women, need 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day. Good sources are fatty fish like salmon and milk and cereal that has vitamin D added to it. Your body also makes vitamin D when your skin is in the sunlight.
  • Zinc. Zinc will help your baby grow and develop properly. Not enough zinc has been linked to preterm birth and a higher rate of infection. It is recommended that women get 8 milligrams while trying to conceive. Good sources of zinc include oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork, baked beans, fortified breakfast cereal, dark meat chicken, and pumpkin seeds.

Most of the nutrients you need should come from foods. But taking a vitamin supplement can help you get the nutrients you need to be ready for pregnancy. You can start taking prenatal vitamins or a vitamin supplement before you get pregnant. Talk to your provider about what vitamin supplement is good for you. And, ask about what foods to eat to help you have a healthy pregnancy—and a healthy baby.