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Prepare for pregnancy with proper nutrition
By Ed Blonz | On Nutrition
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Published: 1/14/2009 12:02 AM

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Q. My husband and I are planning on starting a family. My diet is such that I eat well, but it's far from perfect. I don't always eat all the fruits and vegetables I am supposed to, and I have periodic cravings for sweets and fast foods. I am not yet pregnant, so I can't blame it on "cravings" and all that. Which vitamins and minerals play the biggest role in the development of the baby? We want to get this right, so are there any other strategies that you recommend?

N.P., Chico, Calif.

A. The developing fetus depends upon the mother for all the needed nutrients in her blood so that they can be used at the proper time. Each of the nutrients that functions in a biological system - and that's all of them - is going to be called upon as the fetus develops. This being said, there are a few standouts.

Following conception, one of the first parts of the body to develop is the nervous system. Folic acid plays a key role, but the catch is that folate must be present during the first few weeks after conception - a time at which most women are unaware they're - pregnant. Spina bifida is a type of birth defect in which one or more of the vertebra of the spinal column fails to develop properly, and as much as 75 percent of all cases are attributable to a folate deficiency during those first few weeks of pregnancy.

This explains why it is recommended that all women of childbearing age who are capable of becoming pregnant should make sure they consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid per day.

There is also a special need for iron, as the developing fetus needs to make its own blood supply. It also has to have sufficient iron stores for the first months of life, during which the main source of food may be iron-poor breast milk. This helps to explain why the Recommended Daily Allowance doubles from 15 to 30 milligrams during pregnancy.

Calcium and vitamin D are important, as they are needed for bone development. Calcium absorption doubles during pregnancy, and vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption and utilization. The RDA for calcium is 1,200 milligrams, and the RDA for vitamin D is 10 micrograms.

The final standout is water. When you are pregnant, you should drink eight to 10 glasses of water per day in addition to other liquids. Throughout your pregnancy, a woman's blood volume increases by 50 percent, and the extra water helps to transport nutrients and oxygen to the developing child, and carry waste materials away.

One final note: There are many informational resources available from your health professional, but here are two I recommend for those contemplating a trip down family way. One is "The Fertility Diet" by Jorge Chavarro, M.D. and Walter Willett, M.D. (McGraw Hill, 2007). The other is an instructional video titled "Before Your Pregnancy" by Amy Ogle, R.D. For information, visit the Web site at www.b4yourpregnancy.com.

I also recommend a visit to womenshealth.gov, where you can consult a variety of topics on pregnancy and reproductive health. Stay well and enjoy the adventure.

• Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and the author. Write him at "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Newspaper Enterprise Association, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016 or ed@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.