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Eating For Baby

Foetal programming for overall long term health through diet and nutrition In my last column, I wrote about pregnancy planning and discussed what a woman should do to ensure that her body is in good shape before pregnancy so that she can conceive and bear a healthy baby. Pregnancy planning includes practising healthy lifestyle habits, knowing your health status, getting your immunisations and eliminating hazardous elements in your work and home environment. Diet and nutrition forms a major part of pregnancy planning, which will be discussed in this article.

Research has shown that a woman’s diet from the time before conceiving and during her pregnancy will have a direct effect on the birth weight as well as the long-term health of her child. It is believed that events which occur early in life might not only affect the growth and development of unborn babies but may also predispose them to increased risk of developing diseases in adult life. These effects also follow through and are passed on to the next generation. This concept is termed as ‘foetal programming’ and plays a big part in helping you to achieve a healthy womb environment for your child’s optimal development.

Programming for the future 

The science behind foetal programming suggests that your diet from the period preceding your baby’s conception will have a direct effect on the overall long-term health of your child. Your diet can either protect or indirectly cause your child to suffer adult diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases later in life. A healthy diet helps to ensure that the foetus has all the nutrients it needs to grow and develop normally.

Intergenerational effects of foetal programming

There is even research pointing to the intergenerational effects of foetal programming. Research led by Professor David JP Barker over the past 20 years shows that people with a low birth weight  (weighing less than 2.5kg), or who were thin or stunted at birth, have high rates of coronary heart disease and related disorders like stroke, diabetes and hypertension in adult life. Mothers who gave birth to babies with a low birth weight were often born with a low birth weight themselves.

Therefore, if you eat a healthy diet before you conceive and continue with it during your pregnancy, the benefits will be reaped for several generations to come. A varied and balanced dietary intake will shape your child’s organs and systems in ways that will prepare your child for a long and healthy life.

A healthy womb environment

 Eating a varied and balanced diet, at least three months before getting pregnant, can help to supply the critical nutrients and energy needed for the important development of your baby’s organs while in the womb. Keeping tabs on your nutrient intake will also ensure that you gain the appropriate amount of weight for a healthy pregnancy. There are three basic principles to a healthy diet, which is relevant for anyone at any stage in their lives, but more so for women of child-bearing age.

The first principle is variety, which means ensuring an adequate supply of essential nutrients by including a variety of foods from all the food groups (cereals, fruits & vegetables, meat, dairy products, and fats) in your meals every day. Apart from variety, balance is also important to ensure that you get the proportionate amounts of each food group, according to the recommended daily servings. The basic idea of the food guide pyramid applies as well, with carbohydrates forming the biggest part of your plate, followed by vegetables and fruits, protein foods (including dairy), and small amounts of fats and oils.

Finally, remember the principle of moderation, which allows you to enjoy your food while keeping to the limits. Certain foods, such as cakes, chocolates, pastries, pisang goreng and various kuih-kuih, contain lots of calories but few nutrients – have these sparingly. These principles apply throughout pregnancy as well, because the developing foetus receives its nutrition from the mother’s blood, and excessive or low amounts of certain nutrients will be bad for the baby’s development and growth.

Supplementing the diet

 Most women are aware of the importance of folic acid supplementation during pregnancy, to prevent neural tube defects (deformities in the brain and spinal cord) in the unborn baby. Research also indicates that starting folic acid supplementation three months before pregnancy, and continuing into the first trimester, can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects. The Malaysian Recommended Nutrient Intake states that women between the age of 19 and 65 require 400 micrograms of folic acid a day. This amount increases to 600 micrograms a day for women who are pregnant.

 Good food sources of folic acid are legumes (lentils, kidney beans, oatmeal), green leafy vegetables (spinach, asparagus, ladies’ fingers) and foods fortified with folic acid (such as cereals and bread). Talk to your doctor about whether you need folic acid supplementation before you get pregnant. Do not start vitamin supplements on your own, as it is dangerous for you to exceed the recommended levels of vitamins, such as vitamin A, which could cause harm to your baby.

Maternal Milk Supplementation

During pregnancy, you may find that you will lose their appetite due to morning sickness, or  to certain food aversions. If you are unable to eat a variety of foods or adequate amounts of foods, you may require a maternal milk drink to supplement your diet with the right amount of nutrients. Your doctor may recommend that you take it throughout your pregnancy.

Welcoming a healthy baby

To provide your child with a healthy start in life, it is important for you to eat a healthy diet before and after conception. Furthermore, the benefits of your optimal nutritional status and health even before conception will be evident for several generations. Remember, the key to a healthy diet is, variety, balance and moderation of foods.

Star newspape. May 21, 2010
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar