I’ve always been happy and generally satisfied, if not occasionally ecstatic, about life. However, in looking back from my vantage point as a well-seasoned parent of two children, I now realize that I didn’t have a clue about how good life could be until I had kids. For one thing, kids bring out a side of you that you probably never even knew was there — your mother-bear side, which makes you capable of superwoman-caliber love and protectiveness. Even before your baby has a face or a name (or even a recognizable gender, for that matter), you want the very best for that little tyke. One of the most important things you can give her is a healthy start by eating high-quality foods while you’re pregnant.
For the next nine months (and longer if you breastfeed), your baby is totally dependent on you for all the nutrients she needs, including essential ones like water, protein, calcium and folic acid. Those nutrients come either from your current diet or from stores you stockpiled prior to pregnancy.
Recent research shows that the developing baby is much more sensitive to the mother’s nutritional status than previously thought, and some health consequences don’t show up until much later in her life. Poor intake of one or more essential nutrients during critical periods in an organ’s growth can alter the structure, size or function of that organ.
“There are very good data to show that fetal growth affects adult disease risks,” says Irvin Emanuel, M.D., professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. Researchers suspect that inadequate nutrition during fetal development increases an individual’s risk later in life for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, reduced intellectual ability, impaired immunity and even obesity. If, for example, you aren’t receiving proper nutrition when your baby’s pancreas is forming and its size, structure or function is affected, she could be at a greater risk for diabetes as an adult.
Research also has shown that mothers who were underweight at birth are more apt to bear low-birth-weight babies themselves. Even the growth status of our grandmothers has affected our health by influencing our mothers’ development in the womb. “The changes are subtle, but they accumulate over generations,” says Emanuel.
The responsibility is great but not daunting; just use a little nutritional common sense. “Quality is key when choosing foods during pregnancy,” says Maureen Murtaugh, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. “If women focus on a variety of minimally processed, wholesome foods following the Food Guide Pyramid, they can rest assured they’re providing their babies with everything needed for healthy growth and development.”