Everyone knows you’re supposed to eat healthy foods in pregnancy, just like it’s a good idea to exercise, get enough sleep, reduce stress in our lives, et cetera, pregnant or not. We’re all good at that stuff, right? Yuuuuup. We are good at it in January, anyway. That’s what all those New Year’s resolutions are all about!
But stay with me on this one… there is something about pregnancy that makes all that advice just a tad more weighty. It turns out, research is showing it really does matter what you eat while your baby is growing.
Imagine yourself, a tiny speck of cells — a baby to be! Wouldn’t it be really smart if you could anticipate what the world might be like ahead of time–that world in which you are going to be born, and in which you will need to survive–so that you could prepare for it? Well, it turns out that is exactly what happens. Your baby is already adapting to the outside world, through you.
This is where I’m going to geek out with a bit of history.
Back in the 1950’s, it was thought that a baby was a ‘perfect parasite’ (lovely image, hmm?) which was protected from nutritional deficits in utero by the placenta — essentially, baby would take what it needed no matter what mom ate. Amazingly, a lot of people still believe this!
An epidemiologist named David Barker noticed a paradox: that heart disease rates increased with general wealth of a population, but that the poorest communities in those populations had the highest rates of all. He also noticed that you could have some families where siblings’ health varied immensely — one sibling could eat anything and not gain weight and the other would gain weight on the strictest of diets, and get heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and on. This happened particularly when one sibling was in utero during famine, and the other, not.
No fair, eh? Two siblings from the same gene pool can get vastly different body types and structures.
Voila, the birth of the Fetal Origins Hypothesis. Its premise is that fetal nutrition results in adaptations in the baby that permanently change baby’s structure, physiology, and metabolism.
So there you are, this little speck of cells… and the nutrition you receive in the womb, the signals of stress (cortisol), mom’s insulin levels, smoking, drugs, countless biochemical messages, all act as postcards from the outside. For example, if nutrition is sparse when you were in-utero, you can be a Conserver. You can make your body great at storing fat. If you are actually born into famine, you can survive.
Congrats, you win!
But if you are born into a fast food culture of plenty, like ours, you can’t turn around and reverse-engineer yourself. Nope, you’re already a Conserver. You wind up at risk of our trifecta of western diseases: heart disease, diabetes, stroke. And guess what… those same genes get passed on to the next generation as well.
That’s right, not only your children, but your grandchildren are what you eat.
So we know that…
Suboptimal nutrition (both under- and over-nutrition like our typical Western diet) results in a higher likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in offspring.
High levels of stress (we’re talking war-time-bombs-falling-around-you types of stress, not transient someone-rear-ended-my-car stress) result in higher adult blood pressures in offspring.
That, in animal studies, eating diets high in sugar (our standard western diet) results in both a preference for junk food and inability to regulate food intake (subjects ate a lot more to feel full). Typical Western diets lead to increased insulin resistance and glucose intolerance in offspring
Prenatal nutrition has been implicated in mental health disorders, and even education and income levels.
Yowza. If you just put down whatever junk food you were just eating, I don’t blame you.
But here’s the good news.
While food choices can predispose babies to Western-style diseases, they can also protect. Women having a healthy diet show a variety of benefits to their infants, including protection from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. That person who can eat just about anything and stay slim.
Want your kids to eat their veggies?
Babies have been shown to have a preference for what their mothers ate while pregnant. Babies whose mothers drank carrot juice through pregnancy liked mashed carrots they were given, while babies whose mothers didn’t have carrots made an expression that clearly said, ‘Yuck!’
Similarly, in animal studies mothers who ate junk food had offspring who preferred junk food. But offspring whose mothers didn’t eat junk food, also didn’t eat junk food themselves… even when offered an unlimited supply of it. Not saying your kids won’t be all over that Halloween candy anyway, but…
Breastfeeding has been shown to have a protective effect against later obesity and diabetes.
And, in animal studies, low-fat diets were successful in protecting offspring mice from effects of mother’s diabetes including being leaner and having normal blood sugars.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children found that eating fish in pregnancy enhanced childrens’ brain development.
Fetal Origins and epigenetics (how our lifestyles can turn genes on or off) is a fascinating area of study and we’ve really just scratched the surface. For now, just remember that the food choices you make in pregnancy matter. That doesn’t mean you can’t have chocolate or ice cream… but they should be an occasional treat rather than the bulk of your diet.
For more on how to eat well in pregnancy, check out all our nutrition posts… and go build that healthy baby!
Disclaimer: If you are thinking to yourself… ‘wow, this is really interesting but next to impossible to achieve on my budget and with the rising costs of food…’, we hear you. Check back in the coming weeks for more blog posts addressing this issue.
Heather Mason is a registered midwife with Generations Midwifery Care. You can read more about her here.