Whilst the baby is growing in the womb, his or her organs are developing rapidly. The quality of a mother diet can affect how these tissues and organs develop, and can permanently affect the baby’s risk of developing various diseases.
Did you know that poor nutrition during pregnancy can not only permanently affect the child, but the child’s children – i.e. the grandchildren?
How are these permanent changes triggered? The answer appears to be “programming” – which means the switching on, or off, of particular genes within the DNA. This genetic change can then be inherited by further offspring, potentially leading to abnormal development of body organs.
What diseases can be influenced by nutrition in pregnancy?
• Heart disease
• Mental health conditions such as autism and schizophrenia
• Spina Bifida
• Multiple Sclerosis
• Some forms of cancer
What are the most important vitamins and minerals in pregnancy?
Iodine deficiency during pregnancy is the most important preventable cause of brain impairment in children across the world. Lack of iodine causes thyroid problems, which in turn affect the development of the baby’s brain, leading to reduced IQ levels.
Iodine is found naturally in dairy products such as milk and cheese. In addition, we used to get a lot of iodine from table salt, but people eat less salt now, and tend to use rock or sea salt, which does not contain so much iodine. Also, pregnant mums eat less bread these days, and bread is an important source of iodine as it has to be made using iodised salt.
It’s recommended that woman take a supplement of 150 micrograms of iodine daily during pregnancy.
2. Vitamin D.
Surprisingly, despite our sunny conditions, over 60% of Australian women of reproductive age are now considered Vitamin D deficient. This is probably due to sun protection measures, including the routine use of sunscreens and generally spending less time outdoors. These are very sensible measures to reduce the risks of skin cancer, but if mum is low in Vitamin D then her baby will be also, potentially causing bone problems such as rickets. Less well known is that low Vitamin D in pregnancy increases the risks of multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia in adult life. Did you know that the risk of a child born in Tasmania developing multiple sclerosis is 7 times greater than that of a child born in Queensland, due to the lower sun exposure of the pregnant mum?
Vitamin D can be supplemented by increasing sun exposure, and also with oral supplements of 2-4000IU/day. Mushrooms are a good natural source.
3. Folate and Vitamin B12.
Low folate (or folic acid) levels in pregnancy increase the risk of spina bifida, a serious disorder causing serious spinal cord damage and paralysis. Newer research has now found that low folate levels also cause an increased risk of autism. Vitamin B12 supplements may reduce the risk of childhood brain tumours, particularly in women who drink alcohol when pregnant.
Iron deficiency can cause complications with pregnancy, as well as making mums feel very tired, lightheaded and unwell. Low iron also has a potential impact on the intelligence and behavioural development of the child.
Women at most risk of iron deficiency are those who are vegetarians, those who have had several babies or a short interval between pregnancies, and those who have had severe morning sickness. Red meat and green leafy vegetables contain the most iron, and foods rich in Vitamin C can help with the absorption of iron.
The effects on the baby and even subsequent generations of nutritional deficiencies of the pregnant mother can be serious. As well as eating a sensible, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking and alcohol, supplements especially designed for use in pregnancy are easily available. Your GP, our Perth dietitian and nutritionist Lizzie, your obstetrician or midwife can all give further advice and information tailored to you as an individual.