Nutrition plays a major role in maternal and child health. Poor maternal nutritional status has been related to adverse birth outcomes, although the association between maternal nutrition and birth outcome is complex. Influences include biologic, socioeconomic, and demographic factors, which vary widely in different populations.
By understanding the relation between maternal nutrition and birth outcomes, we have the potential to provide intervention to improve birth outcomes and long-term quality of life. By understanding what it means to eat well in pregnancy, we can reduce mortality, morbidity, and health care costs.
Let’s look for a moment at the brain and heart. What you will see from these two example areas of development is that certain foods can influence how your baby grows and developments. These effects are not just relevant during infancy, but throughout your baby’s adult life.
Adequate nutrition for pregnant mothers and infants is necessary for normal brain development. Pregnancy and infancy are important periods for the formation of the brain, laying the foundation for the development of cognitive, motor, and socioemotional skills throughout childhood and adulthood.
A mother with poor nutrition during pregnancy exposes her child to potential neuropsychological problems, poor school achievement, early school dropout, low skilled employment, and poor care of their own children. This may explain why patterns of poor nutrition emerge between generations.
Your foetus’s brain starts forming just three weeks after conception and the food you eat plays a vital role in its development. A baby’s brain goes through rapid changes, particularly between weeks 24 and 42, with significant brain growth occurring from 34 weeks. The more varied and healthy your diet during this time, the better chance your baby has at developing normal brain behaviour.
The relationship between pregnancy nutrition and brain development is well known, with certain foods standing out as nutritional superstars. These foods are said to include:
Sardines: Like other oily fish, sardines are a rich source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is important for nerve development. It is suggested that pregnant women aim for two serves of fish each week and half of this should be oily.
Lentils: Iron is very important for the production of brain chemicals and myelin, which forms a vital part of the nervous system. Pregnant women require 14.8mg of iron per day, and one serve of lentils provide 6.6mg. For best results, combine iron with vitamin C, to make the iron more available to your body.
Greek yoghurt: According to WHO, iodine deficiency during pregnancy is the leading cause of preventable mental health problems. Pregnant women should aim for 140mcg of iodine per day, and one serve of Greek yoghurt provides 100mcg.
Spinach: Folate occurs organically in spinach and it is vital for the production of new DNA and to regulate cell metabolism while protecting brain tissue from damage. A 180g serving of cooked spinach contributes more than half of your daily requirements.
Eggs: Eggs contain protein and iron, which are essential for brain development. Their high levels of choline place them in the superfood category. Choline is important for developing memory and the lifelong ability to learn.
Nuts and seeds: To satisfy hunger pangs during pregnancy, nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds contain a variety of nutrients which aid in proper foetal brain growth.
Since foetal heart development primarily occurs in the first trimester, it’s important you receive plenty of essential nutrients (such as calcium and phosphorous) that help form the tissues of your baby’s heart. Calcium, copper, phosphorous and thiamine are four nutrients that are critical to the development of the fetal heart. Most pregnant women can consume a sufficient amount of heart-healthy nutrients by following a balanced diet rich in whole grains, leafy greens and lean proteins. Foods to consume include:
High calcium foods: dark leafy greens, cheese, low-fat milk and yoghurt, bok choy, fortified tofu, okra, broccoli, green beans and almonds.
High copper foods: crab meat, raw kale, mushrooms, sesame seeds, cashew nuts, chickpeas, dried fruit (prunes), avocados, goat’s cheese and fermented soy foods.
High phosphorous foods: pumpkin seeds, cheese, fish, nuts, pork, beef, veal, low fat dairy, tofu, beans and lentils.
High thiamine foods: trout, canned tuna, pork, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, whole grains, green peas, pumpkin, cooked asparagus, edamame and beans.
Thanks to science, we are getting a clear understanding of the consequences that come from poor diet during pregnancy. Science tells us:
Obesity has often been thought of as an unfortunate failure of will and self-restraint, but research tells us that the roots of obesity may be more complex. Genes play a clear role in driving an individual’s propensity to gain excess weight, as does the environment and gene-environment interactions. Early-life influences (such as pregnancy nutrition) are thought to shape the trajectory of weight gain and body fatness throughout the life course. Higher birth weight is also associated with diabetes and other adult diseases such as heart disease, stroke and hypertension.
The first microbes to colonise your baby’s gut will set the trajectory for immune function for their entire lifetime. By looking at samples of umbilical cord blood and baby’s first bowel movements, researchers believe babies exhibit gut bacteria acquired from the mother’s digestive system during pregnancy. Since the bacteria strains identified can be affected by diet and lifestyle, eating well and staying healthy during pregnancy can be the first step you take in helping your baby’s immune system develop.
Pesticides and insecticides contain chemicals that are used to attack the nervous system of insects, causing them to die. As the nervous system is still developing in your unborn baby, you want to avoid contact with pesticides whenever possible. Some studies indicate that the greatest risk of exposure to pesticides is during the first 3 to 8 weeks of pregnancy, when the neural tube development is occurring. For this reason, it’s best to eat organic during this time.
The fact that your diet during pregnancy affects your newborn’s health may not be new news to you, but what you may not realise is the overwhelming effect nutrition can have on your baby for years to come. What you eat now essentially affects your baby’s future, so take steps to become properly informed and make the right choices.
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