THE SCIENCE

The Science of Health and Nutrition

We all know the pillars of good health; nutrition, sleep, movement, avoidance of toxins, community and social connectedness. But in our modern ‘busy’ lives many of us let some of these go, or we may not be aware of the health risks of some of our day to day choices. Meeting the fundamentals of good health and a balanced diet is more important than ever when we are preparing for and growing a baby, because the decisions we make can affect the health and wellbeing of our baby throughout their lifetime, for better or worse.

Getting Healthy Before Pregnancy

A successful pregnancy relies on many factors, but one of the most powerful things future mums and dads can do to increase their chances of a successful pregnancy is achieve a healthy weight and be in good health before pregnancy.

For women and men entering their reproductive years, a devastating consequence of poor health and excess weight can be fertility problems. In Australia, 43.6% of reproductive aged women are overweight or obese and 1 in 6 Australian couples have fertility problems.

Excess weight affects female fertility by dysregulating the intricate hormone balance that regulates the menstrual cycle. Through a series of hormonal interactions, excess weight leads to irregularities in, or cessation of, the menstrual cycle, which reduces fertility. Women with a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 27 (normal range is 18.5-24.9) are 3-times more likely than women of normal BMI to be unable to conceive because they don’t ovulate. For women who are obese and do ovulate, their eggs are more likely to be of a reduced quality, leading to lower chances of pregnancy success than women of a healthy weight. When women use IVF to conceive, the chance of having a live baby is lower for women who are overweight (by 9%) or obese (by 20%) than for women with a normal BMI.

Despite the health concerns for women who are overweight or obese during pregnancy, it is not recommended that women attempt to lose weight during pregnancy. Therefore, is it critical that women lose weight prior to becoming pregnant. Weight loss of even 5-10% of body weight can improve overall health and lead to increased fertility and healthier pregnancy outcomes.

In addition to being a healthy weight and eating a nutrient rich diet, other key lifestyle improvements that parents-to-be can make to improve their fertility include avoiding drugs (smoking, alcohol, other recreational drugs); participating in regular exercise; and avoiding toxins and environmental poisons.

Did you know, the egg that will become your baby was formed when you were inside your mother's uterus! This means that as mothers we have so much power for good  not only to optimise the health and wellbeing of our own children, but also of our grandchild! It also means that if we aren’t in great health, but we want to achieve it before pregnancy we need to plan for a pregnancy, allowing time for lifestyle changes to take effect.

We know not all pregnancies are planned, but when they are future mums and dads should invest in their own health to maximise the health benefits for their future children.

Staying Healthy During Pregnancy

The Science of Health and Nutrition

The period of our lives from conception to age 2 – when most decisions are made for us – is critical in shaping our life-long health and wellbeing. This presents an incredible opportunity for mums-to-be to shape the health and wellbeing of their babies life-long health, with only a 1,000 day investment. The first 1,000 days of our life is the period of maximum change in the structure and functioning of our organs and tissues (termed developmental plasticity). Meaning this period has the greatest potential to affect health and wellbeing over the life course. It’s not the only time where optimisation of nutrition and lifestyle factors can have a huge impact on long-term health, but it is one of the most powerful.

The World Health Organisation state that “Good nutrition during the first few years pays dividends throughout life and so investing in early child development is one of the best investments a country can make. This starts with maternal nutrition because of its importance to the fetus and evidence that nutritionally related low-birthweight raises the risk of chronic non-communicable disease in later life. Failure of mothers to get a safe, healthy variety of food during pregnancy and lactation has long-term social and economic consequences." So, supporting our mothers, and making sure that they are healthy and well nourished adds value to how our societies function, as well as the economic prosperity of a country.

Pregnancy is the perfect opportunity to fuel your body with the foods that make you feel great. The requirements for energy (derived from the macronutrients  protein, carbohydrates and fats) change very little during pregnancy, therefore the idiom “Eat for Two” shouldn’t be followed (no matter how tempting that second slice of cake looks). There is, however, a substantial increase in the amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) required during pregnancy. Many women take a prenatal supplement to reach some of these increased demands, but of course supplements are not intended to replace a quality diet and there is recent evidence that many prenatal supplements contain inappropriate amounts of some micronutrients and in some cases these can be harmful (always follow medical advice regarding your own personal circumstances).

Therefore, rather than increasing the amount of food pregnant women eat, there is a need to increase the quality and nutrient density of the food eaten. Eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods can ensure women reach many of the micronutrient targets with the benefit of eating the whole food, to encourage our little humans to enjoy these nutrient-dense foods too.

It takes a village

Today, many of us are more disconnected from our communities than ever. Without a truly effective support network, the days and weeks after our baby’s birth can be the most challenging times of our lives. Looking after our babies is the most important thing we'll ever do. But at the same time our bodies are recovering from pregnancy, healing from injuries often sustained during childbirth, providing breastmilk for our baby’s nutrition, and coping with disrupted and too little sleep.

It’s no surprise that women don’t prioritise meal preparation when there’s a new baby in the house. But during this time, women’s bodies need more energy and nutrients than ever before. Not just to support recovery and lactation, but also to maintain physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

We know not every woman chooses to breastfeed and we respect everyone's right to choose. Howeve, the health benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby are significant and while formula milk is continually improving, it is still no match for breastmilk. So wherever possible, we support and advocate for exclusive breastfeeding to ~6 months of age, with introduction of solids and continued breastfeeding to 2 years of age. Such a commitment to breastfeeding doesn’t come easy and requires a truly supportive community around every woman. The long-term health benefits of breastfeeding are many, including reduced risk of obesity later in life, better self regulation of satiety (fullness) and decreased risk of developing allergies.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, it is important that friends and family provide the community support for women when a new baby comes home. Even experienced mums can be hit with unexpected challenges and no matter how many times you’ve done it, breastfeeding is always hard work. We all need help. Family and friends need to rally around mums, and not just for baby cuddles. Cook food, fold laundry, do shopping. Be useful, so mum and bub can connect and mum can rest and heal. Eat For Baby can’t be there to hold each new mums hand and help her through, but we can be there providing easy access to quality nutrition and that’s our goal, to be there supporting every new mum with the nutrition she and her baby need to thrive.

‘Bonus points’ for maintaining a healthy pregnancy weight and eating nutritious food

Did you know that what you eat during pregnancy affects the food preferences your baby will make when they start choosing foods. The fetus can taste the foods you eat via the amniotic fluid. So if you eat healthy nutritious foods during pregnancy (think vegetables the colour of the rainbow, wholegrains, proteins and fats), eat these same foods during breastfeeding, and if you introduce these foods when your baby moves to solids, baby will choose to eat the same foods too – no more fights at the dinner table over eating those greens!

Women who start pregnancy at a healthy weight and who gain the recommended amount of weight find it easier to lose the weight they gained soon after birth. We mention this, because we know weight is an issue for many women. It is important for women to gain weight during pregnancy, this is essential to fuel the growth and development of the baby late in gestation and to support milk production for breastfeeding. So don’t be in a rush to get back to your pre-baby weight, embrace your motherly curves, they are there to help you grow and nourish your baby.

Overall, eating nutritious food before, during and after pregnancy provides a sound insurance policy for you to give your baby for quality, life-long health. The food and recipes Eat For Baby will provide are all nutrient-dense, delicious and easy to prepare.

Want more detailed science, see our blog to hear from the scientists asking the tough questions to help tomorrow's mothers and babies, and the clinicians caring for today's mums and bubs.

 

References

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