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Take first baby steps with diet

If you and your partner are planning to have a baby, one of the most important factors to consider before conceiving is your diet, as this, depending on how balanced it is, can help or hinder your chances of success. And eating the right nutritious foods now can pave the way for a healthy future for your baby.

Dieticians recommend making dietary and exercise changes at least three to four months in advance of conceiving. This can benefit your pregnancy endeavour in several ways -- it helps to boost your fertility, ensures that your stores of important nutrients are at their best and that your weight is stable.

Being a healthy weight is extremely important when it comes to getting pregnant, so if you are planning to conceive soon, now is a good time to evaluate honestly your dietary habits and check that you are the correct weight for your height. It is not only harder to conceive if you are underweight or overweight, but it can also cause unnecessary pregnancy health problems. Women who are overweight are at risk of blood-pressure problems and gestational diabetes.

Carrying excess weight could also determine your delivery method and result in a Caesarean section or an instrumental delivery -- methods you would want to avoid if possible. Having said that, it is best to take a balanced and sensible approach to losing weight, as crash dieting will only leave you lacking in vital nutrients that your body needs.

For those who are underweight or have a low percentage of body fat, this can also have a negative effect on your hormone balance. You may also be lacking in sufficient nutrient stores, so these will need to be topped up by eating a balanced diet.

Following the food pyramid should provide all the nutrients your body needs for pregnancy, so supplements shouldn't be necessary; however, one supplement that is a must is folic acid.

This form of vitamin B plays a crucial role in the formation of the baby's spinal cord and brain by helping the neural tube to close over properly. You need good stores to be in place at the time of conception for folic acid to be of most benefit in preventing neural-tube defects such as spina bifida and hydrocephalus.

It is recommended that you start by taking a 400mcg folic acid tablet daily for a minimum of 10 to 12 weeks before you plan to conceive, and then continue to take it until weeks 12 to 14 of your pregnancy. It is important to note that if you take medication for epilepsy or have any existing medical conditions, you may need a higher prescription dose, so check this with your GP.

There are also some important vitamins and minerals that you need to keep a close eye on. According to the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, most Irish women fail to eat sufficient iron-rich foods, so this is something to be mindful of when planning a pregnancy.

Foods such as lean, red meat, chicken, turkey, oily fish and green, leafy vegetables are all good sources of iron and should be included in your diet a few times a week to ensure you are not deficient.

Including fruit and vegetables that are high in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits) will help absorb the iron. Avoid or cut down on tea and red wine, as they contain tannins, which can hinder iron absorption. Again, iron supplements are not recommended in the early stages of pregnancy, so focus on improving your diet first. It is especially important for vegetarians to pay close attention to their iron sources.

Studies have shown that women often lack calcium and vitamin D -- nutrients that are hugely important for the protection of your bones and for your baby's healthy development. Eat between three and five portions of dairy a day, including milk, cheese and yoghurts, and source vitamin D from oily fish, eggs and sunshine.

So, what should you avoid when trying to conceive? Alcohol should be cut down or cut out, as this can negatively effect fertility. Excessive alcohol is harmful to your baby's development, and the early days and weeks of life (when you may not know that you are pregnant) are most sensitive to even moderate amounts of alcohol.

As well as the harmful effects smoking can have on our own bodies, it reduces fertility, and has been linked to premature birth and low birth weights.