Most expectant mothers are aware of how important it is to eat healthy during their pregnancy. But, do you realize how critical getting enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients is for the healthy development of a fetus?
A nutrient-poor diet won’t just affect fetal development; it could set your child up for a lifetime of future health issues.
Diet Affects Your Baby from Conception
According to this 2014 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study nutritional deficiencies, even at the time of conception, can permanently alter your baby’s genes. The report, published in Nature Communications, is the first that finds an environmental factor in the earliest days of fetal development can cause long-term alterations in DNA.
This doesn’t mean that the genetic code itself was changed. What the researchers discovered was that diet had an effect on whether the six particular genes they studied were turned on or off – in the earliest stages of fetal development.
B Vitamins can be Critical to Baby’s Development
A unique chemical tag that influences whether a gene is activated or not is called methylation. The amount of methylation observed in each of the six genes they looked at depended on just a few B vitamins and the nutrients that accompany them.
The scientists couldn’t figure out precisely which B vitamins and other nutrients had the most significant effect, but, when the mother’s blood had low levels of vitamin B2 and several other nutrients, the genes they examined had less methylation.
According to Andrew Prentice, a nutritionist who contributed to this study, the vitamin levels in the women who participated in the study weren’t exceptionally low. If a doctor examined the test-subject’s blood samples, he would say that the vitamin levels were normal.
Besides vitamin B levels, they also discovered that a mother’s body mass index (BMI) also influences how genes are expressed. The fatter you are, the less methylation of the baby’s genes. Same as with vitamin B, none of the mothers in the study were overweight – but women with a higher BMI had babies with less methylation of their genes.
What Type of Food and How Much of it
During pregnancy, what type of food and how much of it is crucially important for the healthy development and overall health of your baby.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommendations are that a pregnant woman should eat between 2200 and 2900 calories per day, on average. They should also only gradually increase calorie intake as the pregnancy progresses.
A study in the May 2010 Biology of Reproduction lists the negative impact poor nutrition can have on fetal development and health. The conclusion is that undernourishment during pregnancy will slow the baby’s growth and can result in an underweight child at birth. Low birth weight babies can have an increased chance of developing health issues later in life, like:
- High blood pressure
- Neurological problems
However, it still isn’t clear why poor nutrition before birth and a low birth weight increases the odds of experiencing these problems later on.
The Balance of Dietary Nutrients
Maintaining a healthy balance of dietary nutrients is also critical to the healthy development of your baby. According to the Mayo Clinic, a pregnant woman should eat at least 71 grams of protein. Lisa S. Brown, PhD, RD recommends around 175 grams of carbohydrate and 13 grams of healthy fats like plant-based oils and moderate quantities of other fats.
According to a 2015 animal study in the NIH journal, Nutrients, researchers found that low protein intake during pregnancy will adversely affect the baby’s birth weight, blood pressure, brain weight, and metabolism compared to normally fed test-animals.
Vitamins and Minerals During Pregnancy
Getting the right number of vitamins and minerals during pregnancy is essential to ensure your baby’s health and development.
Although research has failed to associate a deficiency in any particular vitamin with fetal health issues in human beings, animal studies have suggested that vitamin deficiency can have serious implications for the baby’s long-term health.
- A vitamin C deficiency may result in abnormal heart development
- Low vitamin A levels could slow the rate that cells divide, interfering with heart, lung and liver development
- A deficiency in vitamin D may slow growth and the healthy development of bones
- Low vitamin K intake could impact the development of the face and teeth
While a growing fetus needs all the B vitamins; folate is essential. Folate deficiency is associated with spina bifida, which causes abnormal development of the fetal spinal cord and vertebral column. Minerals like calcium, zinc, iron, and iodine are also essential for the fetus (and mother), to ensure a healthy pregnancy and prevent premature birth and low birth weight.
Mother’s Diet During Pregnancy Influences Baby’s Food Preferences
There are studies that suggest a more mature fetus is capable of experiencing tastes and smells in the womb. At seven months, a fetus’s taste buds are fully formed, and even the baby’s sense of smell appears to be functional.
Food flavors experienced by the mother will find their way into the amniotic fluid that’s continually swallowed by the fetus. A 2000 experiment appears to confirm that babies can remember and prefer the taste of foods the mother ate during pregnancy after they’re born.
What You Can Do
Bacteria can have a devastating impact on you and your baby’s health. You must protect yourself and the baby from harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. Any one of these bacteria can potentially cause miscarriage or preterm delivery. Pregnant women should avoid soft cheeses containing unpasteurized milk, raw or undercooked poultry, meats, eggs, and seafood. Other precautions include keeping your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and throwing away leftovers that have been at room temperature for more than two hours.
Get more calcium. Try to get at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day; the baby needs it for proper bone and tooth development during the second and third trimesters. Also, without enough calcium in the diet, your baby will begin to absorb it from your bones; increasing the risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Increase your iron intake. Your iron requirement almost doubles during pregnancy. Expectant mothers should get around 30 milligrams of iron every day. This will support the typical 50 percent increase in blood volume during pregnancy and will promote fetal iron storage. Iron is how the body transports oxygen, and the fetus will benefit from the healthy supply sufficient iron levels will bring.
DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain and eyes. Consuming enough of this nutrient (found in seafood and flaxseed) is critical to ensure you and your growing baby’s health. DHA can boost the fetus’s brain development before birth, and ensure
- Better vision
- Motor skills
- Language development during early childhood
Try to eat at least 12 ounces of seafood per week or use a DHA supplement from a reputable vitamin company to reap the health benefits of this essential fatty acid. Remember eat well for your life and your coming child.