The moment you see the second line and realise you’re pregnant, you’ll probably start to think about how best to bring a healthy child into the world.
Don’t eat soft unpasteurised cheese.
Avoid medication as much as possible.
Exercise, but not too strenuously.
Take your prenatal vitamins and get to every prenatal appointment on time.
Most likely you’ve thought about at least some of these things. You’re already planning to do everything ‘right'.
We’ve always known it’s good to maintain a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy, but now we’re learning just how important it can be.
New research suggests that our eating habits during pregnancy affect not only our children, but also our grandchildren AND great grandchildren. No pressure….
Hearing that can be intimidating, but it’s still important that we take time to understand how, and why – and what the implications might be.
How Was The Study Conducted?
For years, medical professionals have believed that maternal diet plays an important role in fetal development.
In recent decades, many developed countries have been dealing with very high rates of high BMIs and obesity, and poor maternal eating habits. These are linked to having easy access to inexpensive, processed foods, and little access to affordable whole foods.
Due to these changes in our populations, it became necessary to study the impact these things can have on fetal development – both short and long term.
One unique aspect of this research is that it is the first study to find that a mother’s eating habits have an impact on her offspring, even before she becomes pregnant.
Changes which occur in the mitochondrial DNA, found in unfertilised eggs, can cause chromosomal abnormalities which are passed down the female bloodline.
To study this, researchers fed mice an unhealthy diet that contained 60% fat and 20% sugar. The mice began this diet prior to conception and maintained it through weaning. After weaning, the offspring were fed a control diet, and researchers followed results over three generations.
What Did The Study Find?
The offspring born to the obese mothers that were fed the unhealthy diet had impaired peripheral insulin signalling, which was associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. These changes were also seen in the second and third generation of the female bloodline.
In simper terms, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (diabetes), as the result of genetic change, were found in the offspring of mothers who consumed a poor diet. These genetic changes were still seen in two further generations.
What Does This Mean?
The study was conducted on mice, but researchers strongly believe the results are also relevant for human beings. In fact, they believe the implications might be even more cause for concern in human populations.
If you are obese, you have increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome (diabetes) and other health complications. If you were born to a mother who was obese, this increases your risk of being obese yourself. Even if you are at a healthier weight, you’re still at an increased risk of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
This research, however, is unique because it shows the risks can persist for multiple generations, even when they follow a control diet (a well-balanced diet, unlike the 60% fat and 20% sugar diet fed to first generation of mothers).
What Can I Do With This Information?
First, it’s important to remember that risk doesn’t equal a guarantee. Risk simply means that certain behaviours can increase the likelihood of certain outcomes.
Knowing the risks helps us make informed decisions. We cannot go back and change our mother’s eating habits. We can’t change the habits we had before conceiving, or even the habits we had yesterday during a current pregnancy. However, we can change our future habits.
Knowing that poor eating can have an impact on our DNA, which then affects our offspring, can be a great motivation for making healthier choices. It can also help us make behaviour changes to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes in our offspring. This might offset some of the risk they might have been exposed to due to our eating habits, or our mother’s.
A healthy, well-balanced diet, an active lifestyle, and breastfeeding are all things we can do which will reduce our own risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as reduce those risks for our offspring.
I’m Planning A Pregnancy, What Should I Do?
If you’re planning to conceive, it’s a great idea to begin working towards becoming your healthiest you. Adequate hydration, rest, a well-balanced diet, and staying active can help you reach a healthier weight (if needed), and develop healthy lifestyle habits.
You can read more about preparing for pregnancy in BellyBelly’s article Pre-Conception Checklist – How To Prepare For Pregnancy.
If you have risk factors for developing gestational diabetes, you can talk to your healthcare provider now about ways to reduce that risk. We now know our preconception diet can affect our offspring, so improving our health reduces risks. When we know better, we should try to do better.
As a society, we’re now learning just how important our eating habits are. So we can, and should, work towards our better health and nutrition education.
I’m Already Pregnant, What Can I Do?
If you’re already pregnant, obviously you can’t change your preconception diet.
Remember, however, a risk isn’t a guarantee. Also remember that while we can’t reduce risks from our previous behaviours, we can reduce risks by changing our current ones.
A well-balanced diet and some exercise during pregnancy can help us have healthier pregnancies, and set up our babies for a good start in life. It can also help to reduce the risk of Gestational Diabetes, as studies have shown.
Foods to avoid:
- Sugar (in drinks and food)
- White carbs/processed grains (bread, pasta, cereals, etc)
- Low fat foods, including dairy.They are typically higher in sugar to compensate
- Note that foods labelled with ‘no sugar' often contain artificial sweeteners. If they do, they are also best avoided
Eat Plenty of these:
- Protein (eggs, fish, chicken, some red meat)
- Good fats (avocado, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds)
- Leafy greens, and vegetables.
When reading nutrition labels on food, bear in mind that one teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. It's recommended to have no more than 7 teaspoons a day.
If you take note of the labels on drink and food packaging, you might be shocked to see how much sugar is actually ‘hidden' in many foods. Even children's squeezie yoghurts can have several teaspoons in one serve/sachet.
The best bet? Choose foods that don’t have nutrition labels. In other words, the types of foods you’ll find listed above.
I Already Have Children; Is Any Of This Relevant To Me?
If you’ve already conceived and given birth, you can’t change risk factors from previous time periods. However, you can continue to reduce your risks, and your children’s risks, of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, through healthy eating and lifestyle choices.
Research shows that breastfeeding reduces both mother and baby’s risk of developing diabetes, certain cancers, and some cardiovascular diseases.
We also know that providing ourselves and our children with a well-balanced diet is important for overall health. This, and having an active lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of many future health issues.
It can be intimidating to think about all the potential risks our lifestyle and eating choices can have – not only on us, but on our children too.
However, it’s important to realise research isn’t done to scare or shame us, or cause anxiety. It’s done to help us understand how our bodies work, and what steps we can take to help them work at their best.