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Micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are compounds found in trace amounts that are essential for normal growth and development. Before conception, conception, implantation, the formation of the placenta and embryo growth can all be affected by nutritional intake and in particular, micronutrient imbalances.
Micronutrient deficiencies are associated with higher reproductive risks such as infertility and negative effects during pregnancy. Ensure you eat a wide variety of fresh food in your diet and if you are vegetarian pay extra attention to sources for the micronutrients below.
Iron is needed to carry oxygen in the blood and for energy production. A low iron intake can result in iron deficiency anaemia, with symptoms such as tiredness, loss of appetite and decreased ability to exercise. Worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficit.
There are two forms of iron in the diet: haem iron found in animal foods such as red meats, seafood, poultry and offal, and non-haem iron found in plant foods including legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, wholegrain breads and cereals. Non-haem iron is less well absorbed by the body than haem iron.
You can improve your absorption of non-haem iron by eating it with a food rich in Vitamin C eg. citrus fruits and juices, berries, dark green and orange vegetables (particularly broccoli, capsicum and brussels sprouts). Natural substances in tea can decrease absorption of non-haem iron, so it is best to drink tea between meals.
Zinc is required by the body for growth and repair of body cells, playing an important role in ovulation and the menstrual cycle. Zinc is a vital part of many enzyme reactions and assists in wound healing and maintenance of your immune system. Similarly to iron, the best sources of zinc are animal foods, and this is also the most well absorbed form.
Meat is the richest source of zinc, however eggs, milk and milk products include some zinc. Plant based sources of zinc include breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds. Phytates are natural substances in wholegrains and soya beans which can reduce zinc absorption from these foods. Hence it is important to include a range of zinc containing foods, and not rely on one particular food to help meet your requirements.
Meat substitutes are made from vegetable protein, often described as textured vegetable protein (TVP) or nutmeat. Whilst they are not essential, they are a useful source of high quality protein and also contain some iron and zinc. If you are vegetarian have a read of our 'Controverisal Soy....' resource.
Vitamin B12 is vital for blood cell formation and functioning of the nervous system. The best sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products. Some plant foods also contain vitamin B12, however this form of the vitamin is not useful to the body.
Some non-dairy milks, such as So Good®, contain added vitamin B12 in a form that the body can use. A strict vegan must include foods with added vitamin B12, or take a vitamin B12 supplement. A vitamin B12 deficiency may take years to show up and can have very serious effects, particularly for babies of vitamin B12 deficient mothers who are breast fed for a long period of time. While a supplement may be required during the pre-conception period, a vegan mother is strongly recommended to take a B12 supplement during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is incredibly difficult to obtain sufficient B12 from plant foods.
Calcium is vital for healthy bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting and nerve and muscle function. Those who exclude milk and dairy foods also need to carefully plan their diet to ensure adequate calcium as milk and milk products are the best sources of calcium.
Non-dairy milks fortified with calcium are an acceptable substitute. Always check that the products you choose though are fortified. Small amounts of calcium are present in plant foods such as broccoli, hummus, dried fruit and nuts such as almonds, brazil nuts, dried figs. These foods alone will not provide adequate calcium in the diet. To obtain 300mg of calcium (roughly the amount in 1 glass of milk) you would need to eat 12 cups of cooked broccoli or 5 cups of cooked spinach! If avoiding dairy or non-dairy fortified milk a calcium supplement may be necessary.
Extra folate is recommended for any woman trying to conceive. Leafy green vegetables are a fantastic source of folate and many products such as cereal and bread are also fortified with folate. Supplementing with ~400mcg however is still recommended during the pre-conception period and into pregnancy.
When you head to the shops next why not buy some new fruits and vegetables to add a variety of micronutrients to your diet. Grab something you have always wanted to try and learn how to include it in your cooking. Variety is the spice of life as they say.....