As we're celebrating Women's Month, I got to thinking about the vital role that mothers play in relation to the diet and health of their children and families. It is fair to say that in most families, the mother determines what foods are purchased (often on a tight budget) and what the family eats.
In African communities, women are generally also responsible for producing crops that feed the family. Consequently, mothers are truly the backbone of healthy eating. At no time is a mother’s role more important than during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Prenatal and pregnancy nutrition
A prospective mother can determine the health of her child before birth and for the rest of the child’s life. This is an awesome responsibility. By eating healthy foods, avoiding alcohol, smoking, potentially dangerous medications and over-the-counter drugs (including slimming pills and herbal diet preparations!), and taking certain supplements before and during pregnancy, a mother can ensure that her baby has the best possible chance in life.
Excessive alcohol intake before conception and during the sensitive first trimester can cause irreversible damage to the developing foetus, a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome.
The incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome in South Africa is the highest in the world and has tragic consequences for the mental and physical development of children born to mothers who drink.
Although there has been some speculation about the ‘safe’ level of alcohol intake before conception and during pregnancy (Miles, 2008), the safest rule is to stop drinking when you decide that you want to start a family and abstain totally for the entire duration of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Rather safe, than sorry.
Take Folic Acid
Research has also shown that taking folate or folic acid supplements before conception and during pregnancy can improve the chances that your child will not suffer from spina bifida.
The fact that our maize meal and wheat bread is fortified with folic acid (together with seven other vitamins and minerals), has reduced the incidence of spina bifida in South Africa and ensured that the folic acid status of women and children throughout the country is now regarded as adequate (Labadarios et al, 2008).
The use of food that are naturally rich in omega-3 (fish, especially oil fish like tuna, sardines, mackerel) and omega-3 enriched foods (eggs, milk and bread) or omega-3 supplements (salmon or flaxseed oil [for vegetarians]) before conception, and during pregnancy and lactation can improve the omega-3 intake of the unborn foetus and the developing infant. Omega-3 is regarded as important to ensure the healthy development of the eyes and nervous system (Stokes, 2008).
Prevent Iron Deficiency
Expectant mothers are often anaemic and require iron supplementation during pregnancy. In addition to iron supplements, mothers can ensure that they have an adequate iron intake by regularly eating red meat, liver, poultry, fish, eggs, iron-fortified bread and cereals, and dried fruit, like raisins.
Drink some orange juice with your breakfast to help your body absorb the iron that has been added to the cereal. Iron deficiency in young children can hamper mental development and prevent your child from doing well at school in years to come.
Calcium is Vital
Pregnant Moms require 1300 mg of calcium a day to provide babies with enough calcium to develop strong bones and teeth, and to prevent their own skeleton and teeth from deteriorating.
The old adage ‘Lose a tooth for every child’ should no longer be applicable in this century. Having three servings of milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese or other cheeses every day for the entire nine months and during breastfeeding will ensure that you obtain all the calcium you and baby require.
The Right Weight Gain
The question of how much weight a pregnant mother should gain, is often heatedly debated.
On the one hand, women who are underweight and undernourished before and during pregnancy, run the risk of giving birth to babies that are small for gestational age. Such babies are often also deficient in a variety of vital nutrients.
According to a researchers called Barker, this ‘starvation’ before birth has been linked to children developing many so-called diseases of lifestyle in later years, particularly obesity.
The Barker Hypothesis states that children who are deprived before birth and are underweight at birth, are more likely to develop obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes when they get older, than children who enjoy adequate nutrition before birth (Barker & Osmond, 1986).
If you are underweight (BMI of less than 19,8) at the start of your pregnancy, make sure that you eat a well balanced diet during pregnancy and that you gain at least 13 to 18 kg over the nine months of your pregnancy. This will help ensure that your baby has a normal weight at birth and is protected against many diseases in later life.
Conversely mother who either gain more weight than necessary during pregnancy or start their pregnancy with a BMI exceeding 29, expose themselves and their babies to a variety of risks.
Overweight mothers are more likely to suffer from preeclampsia and have to undergo caesarian sections. Babies of overweight mothers have a higher risk of still births and being large for gestational age, a condition that is linked to adult obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Basically mothers who start off their pregnancies with a normal BMI (19, 8 to 25) can gain between 11,5 and 16 kg over the nine months of pregnancy, while women who have high BMIs exceeding 29, should not gain more than 6kg during their pregnancies.
Pregnancy is, however, not the time to embark on crash or fad slimming diets or exhaustive exercise, as this can also harm your baby and your own health. Rather consult a dietitian to assist you with a balanced, moderately energy-reduced diet that still contains all the nutrients you and baby need for good health, to keep excessive weight gain in check.
What Moms eat, drink and do during pregnancy will determine the health and happiness of their children for the children’s entire lives.
References: (Barker DJ, Osmond C (1986). Infant mortality, childhood nutrition, and ischaemic heart disease in England and Wales. The Lancet, 1(8489):1077-81; Labadarios D et al (2008). Executive summary of the National Food Consumption Survey Fortification Baseline (NFCS-FB-I), SA, 2005. SA Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 21(3) (Supplement 2):245-300; Miles L (2008). Alcohol in pregnancy: is there a safe amount? Nutrition Bulletin, Vol 13(3):224-226; Stokes CS (2008). Foods for the brain - can they make you smarter? Nutrition Bulletin, Vol 13(3):221-223).
Essential nutrients for pregnancy
Weight gain during pregnancy
What moms should eat
Malnourished baby, unhealthy adult