The concept of “eating for two” takes on an entirely new meaning when you realize the long term significance of prenatal nutrition. Until recently, eating well during pregnancy focused on adequate birth weight and perhaps, a healthy APGAR score.
Today, we know there is more to the story. There is growing evidence that a mother’s eating pattern during pregnancy may impact multiple aspects of a child’s future health including everything from its risk of diabetes to its cognitive development.
“We are learning a great deal more about the actual mechanisms whereby experiences and exposures during this period become embedded in our biology with lifelong consequences,” says Tim Moore, PhD, lead author of “The First Thousand Days: An Evidence Paper.”
You may have heard the term “epigenetics” in relationship to the impact of maternal diets on a child’s health. Epigenetic processes work like a series of dimmer switches; they control how strongly certain genes are expressed without altering the genetic code.
Examples of maternal diet impact
- What an expectant mother eats affects the bacteria that populate her baby’s digestive tract. These bacteria influence the development of baby’s immune system and overall health.
- A Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of a child’s wheezing and appears to be protective against type 2 diabetes.
- Higher consumption of sugar during pregnancy is associated with the development of childhood asthma.
- Consuming 300 milligrams of caffeine per day is linked to excessive growth during an infant’s first year of life. It’s also linked to an increased risk of the child being overweight at age eight and possibly into adulthood. Did you know a prominent coffee brand contains 310 milligrams in a grande Medium Roast cup?
- Gaining too little weight leads to babies born with low birth weight who can later develop overweight, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Maternal overnutrition leads to excess energy delivery to the fetus; large newborns can have abnormal metabolic responses that can also lead to overweight, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- A low carbohydrate diet – found in Keto and other fad diets – appear to epigenetically influence genes associated with weight and cardiometabolic health. Several studies found that the newborns of mothers with low carb intake had genetic expression of higher risk of obesity in childhood.
As we await more specifics as to an optimal maternal diet, keep in mind the dietary pattern recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for expectant mothers:
Whole grains. Eat whole grain breads, cereals, pastas and brown rice.
Fruits. Enjoy all types of fruits, including fresh, frozen or canned without added sugars.
Vegetables. A variety of colorful vegetables, fresh, frozen or canned with no added salt should be included. Avoid raw sprouts.
Lean protein. Choose lean protein from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and peas, peanut butter, soy products and nuts. Due to their mercury content, pregnant women should avoid eating tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel, and limit white (albacore) tuna to six ounces per week. Deli, luncheon meats and hot dogs should be reheated if consumed.
Low-fat or fat-free dairy. This includes milk, cheese and yogurt. Unpasteurized milk and some soft cheeses that are made from unpasteurized milk also should be avoided.
Healthful fats. Include avocados, nuts and seeds as well as vegetable oils including canola and olive oil.
Of course, avoid drinking alcohol during these nine months.
And after your baby is born – if you can – nurse your baby with the milk Mother Nature provided free of charge for as long as you can.
Setting your new baby up for good health may seem daunting. It’s truly just getting back to basics while you look forward to holding your new baby in your arms!
This also appears in the May 2019 issue of New York Family magazine.