Nearly all pregnant women know that they have to take prenatal supplements and stop smoking and drinking to protect the health of their unborn baby. But does it really make a difference to Baby if you gorge on ice cream and skimp on fruit, grilled chicken, and brown rice? Actually, yes. David Barker, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, explains the theory.
Why and how does a woman's diet impact the development of a fetus?
When a fetus is undernourished early in life, cells are programmed to expect fewer nutrients throughout life. When these babies are then given a richer diet in childhood, they quickly put on weight and have a tendency to become fat. My research has shown that heart disease rates are twice as high in those who come from the poorest areas in England and Wales; these individuals were small, malnourished babies born to women who had poor diets during pregnancy. In this country, the highest rates of strokes occur in the deep South, where the poorest Americans live.
But food is plentiful in the United States today. Why would this still be a problem?
We also have one of the world's poorest diets. Today, more mothers are giving birth to 9- and 10-pound babies, but that's also the result of poor nutrition. Many of these mothers are prediabetic and overweight and have been eating poorly their entire lives. We've recently seen that the biggest babies, like the smallest babies, have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes later in life.
What is an ideal pregnancy diet?
One that's not monotonous. American and British diets are characterized by bland processed foods that have few nutrients, and people tend to eat the same things day in and day out. If you go to a market in France, where people enjoy some of the lowest rates of heart disease, you'll see all kinds of variety. Women buy different kinds of oranges or apples from one day to the next just to get a sweeter or tarter sensation. They'll serve salmon one night and grilled chicken the next with different fresh spices chopped into the mix to vary the taste. Getting a balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrate in every meal is vital, but so is unpredictability. Looking for different tastes and colors in every meal will ensure that a baby gets all the nutrients needed for proper growth and development.
Won't a prenatal supplement provide all these nutrients?
Not by a long shot. There are so many beneficial nutrients in foods, beyond vitamins and minerals, that we haven't even yet identified. And we now know that many nutrients have a synergistic effect, conferring maximum benefits in the combinations found in whole foods. Researchers have moved well beyond the days of thinking that a single nutrient, like folic acid, would solve all our health problems.