Many women take better care of their health during pregnancy than at any other time but a growing body of medical knowledge is highlighting how important it is to take care of one’s health even before conception. There are a number of things women and men can do before conception that contribute to the health of the children they hope to have some day.

Zinc supplementsA diet rich in zinc is the subject of a recent study that showed how important this mineral is before pregnancy begins. Francisco Diaz, an assistant professor of reproductive biology at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, used mice to study the effects of zinc on a preconception diet. He discovered the fetuses carried by the zinc-deficient mothers were significantly smaller and more poorly developed than the pregnant mice fed a zinc-rich diet.

A mouse lives about a year in the wild. Mice used in scientific experiments and those kept in homes as pets may live longer since they live in an environment free of natural predators and other threatening elements. A mouse pregnancy lasts about 20 days.

Diaz and his research team used two groups of female mice in their study:

  • The control group was fed a normal diet, containing an adequate amount of zinc, for four or five days before ovulation.
  • The study group received a zinc-deficient diet during this time.

When the mice became pregnant, the research team assessed development of the embryos and placentas at days 3, 6, 10, 12, and 16 of the 20-day pregnancy. The research team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and light microscopy to evaluate the health and development status of the developing fetuses. They found:

  • The offspring of the zinc-deficient mice were 38% smaller, on average, than those born to the control group.
  • Fetal development of the zinc-deprived offspring proved to be delayed or abnormal in various ways, indicating inadequate nutritional support.
  • The fetal side of their placentas were poorly developed as well.

The Diaz team found low levels of DNA methyl groups in the eggs produced by the zinc-deprived mice. These groups work like chemical tags that support development of the embryo and placenta after fertilization. Diaz said “much less DNA methylation in eggs from zinc deficient mice suggest(s) that programming of the egg is defective.” Similar programming defects could affect the eggs of women who don’t consume adequate amounts of zinc before becoming pregnant.

The human body does not need much zinc but a steady supply of it is important. The body processes zinc quickly so more is needed on a regular basis.

A diet rich in grains hinders zinc absorption. Seafood, meats, dairy, almonds, cashews, and chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are good sources of zinc. Supplements can be taken as well.


  1. Diaz, Francisco J, et al. “Preconception Zinc Deficiency Disrupts Postimplantation Fetal and Placental Development in Mice.” Biology of Reproduction. Society for the Study of Reproduction. Mar 1, 2014. Web. Jun 15, 2014.
  2. “Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” NIH Health Information. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Jun 5, 2013. Web. Jun 15, 2014.