Within days of conception the tiny embryo implants itself into the wall of its mother’s womb where it almost immediately begins receiving the nutrients it needs to grow and develop. All major organ systems begin development in the first four to eight weeks of pregnancy, so it’s critical that enough nutrients are available – and certain medications are avoided by the mother – to reduce the risk of a major abnormality in this particularly vulnerable period.
Until recently, a daily folic acid supplement of 800mcg was the only dietary supplement recommended for pregnant women and women planning to conceive, in order to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. However, recently the Ministry of Health began advising pregnant and breastfeeding women to take a 150mcg daily supplement of iodine. This mineral is essential for brain development and growth of the fetus, but our food supply doesn’t provide enough to meet the needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women.
More recently still, certain dietary patterns have been linked to a reduced risk of major abnormalities in babies. In a 2011 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, eating a healthier diet prior to pregnancy, either a Mediterranean-style diet or one that follows the US food pyramid, was associated with half the risk of having a baby with anencephaly (where part of the brain or skull is missing), 34% less risk of having a baby with a cleft lip and 26% reduced risk of cleft palate.
More research is required to confirm these findings, but in the meantime there’s no harm in following a healthy diet if you are pregnant or planning to conceive. Maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy increases the chances of birthing a healthy live baby; being either overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth at or after 28 weeks of pregnancy, according to findings from the Auckland Stillbirth Study, published in 2011 in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.
How obesity increases the risk of stillbirth is unknown, but what is known is that around a quarter of late (28 weeks plus) stillbirths in New Zealand could be prevented if no pregnant women were obese, according to Professor Lesley McCowan, head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Auckland and co-author of the study. About 200 late stillbirths occur annually in otherwise normal singleton pregnancies; maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy could therefore prevent some 50 deaths annually, a figure comparable to the 60 Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy (Sudi or Sids) each year.
FERTILITY AND DIET
For many couples Christmas was a painful reminder of their infertility; as aunties and uncles unwittingly ask when they plan to have children, and pregnant relatives seem like a neon sign reminding them of what they’re missing. Infertility is an unseen problem, made worse by the fact that few people understand how traumatic the condition is on a day-to-day basis, unless they’ve walked the path themselves.
It would be overly simplistic to suggest that dietary changes will fix all fertility problems, because they won’t. But it’s long been recognised that a healthy body weight increases the chances of conception, and emerging evidence now suggests that certain dietary patterns are also associated with greater rates of fertility.
For starters a 2011 Spanish study, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet was associated with a nearly 50% lower chance of women having difficulty getting pregnant. Additionally, two studies on men’s dietary habits and fertility were recently presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s conference.
One study found that a healthier diet composed of a higher intake of fish, fresh fruit, whole grains, legumes and vegetables was associated with improved sperm movement. The second study found that men who consumed fewer trans fatty acids had higher sperm concentrations. Trans fats are found in fried foods and commercial baked goods. Again more research is required, but in the meantime, adopting a healthier diet may be fruitful in more ways than we’ve previously expected.
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