We all know that an unhealthy diet and lifestyle can lead to chronic diseases down the road, but many young and even middle-aged people still hold the belief that they are too young to be affected. Although heart diseases and cancer may not kick in straight away, poor lifestyle factors can have immediate and far-reaching impacts in your offspring’ health, in what’s known as “early life programming”.
What parental factors could affect offspring’ health?
- Poor nutrition, eg. high-energy and high-fat diets
- Poor sleep quality
- Low level of physical activity
- Exposure to environmental pollutants
Among the listed risk factors, poor nutrition has the biggest effect. For example, both maternal malnutrition and over nutrition can increase the risk of diabetes in the offspring. Similarly, a father’s poor dietary choices have been shown to reduce sperm quality by reducing motility and damaging genetic materials. Growing evidence also suggests that adverse effects of poor nutrition could be encoded into epigenetic signals that are transmitted to future generations, which put their health at risk even later in adulthood.
Optimizing nutrition before and during pregnancy
Good nutrition in pregnancy starts before conception. Women should start their pregnancy with a normal body mass index and good levels of micronutrients, including iodine, iron, vitamin D, folate and many others. Since the growing foetus requires constant nutrition, pregnant women may need to eat more often, such as three meals and two healthy snacks a day.
What we know from research is that low-glycaemic, Mediterranean diet patterns have been shown to improve ovulatory infertility, decrease preterm birth and the risk of gestational diabetes. Such patterns include high intakes of vegetables, fruits, grains, and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from low-mercury fish or supplements. In agreement with these findings, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends pregnant women to consume:
- Plenty of vegetables of different colours, which indicate different micronutrients
- Legumes and beans
- Grains, mostly wholegrain and high-fibre grains, not highly processed cereals
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs
- Tofu, nuts and seeds
- Dairy products in reduced fat
- Plenty of water
Essentially, a well-balanced diet, including a variety of unprocessed foods from mostly plants, is recommended. For example, instead of processed fruit juices and sugary drinks, try to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Vitamins and minerals
Micronutrients are involved in the most fundamental processes required for survival and growth. Iron is essential for carrying oxygen around the body and zinc is required for proper functioning of many enzymes. Iodine regulates thyroid hormones, which could result in congenital hypothyroidism and brain damage if it is deficient during pregnancy.
Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin upon sunlight exposure, which regulates calcium and phosphorous levels in the body, promoting bone health, immune functions, and various other processes.
B complex vitamins, especially B12 and folate, are crucial for pregnancy as they are required for DNA replication and cell division. Women are recommended to start folate supplementation 3 months before getting pregnant to prevent neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 is similarly essential for core functions in the oxygen-carrying red blood cells and the nervous system. People who are on a plant-based diet should supplement vitamin B12 due to higher risk of deficiency.
Foods to avoid
In addition, there are some things that are best avoided, including foods that may lead to foodborne illnesses, such as:
- Uncooked meat, eggs, fish
- Raw spouts
- Processed meats
- Non-pasteurized dairy products such as soft cheeses
Since fish may contain high levels of mercury that may cause developmental delays in the fetus, it is recommended to consume no more than 100g cooked fish per week or fortnight depending on the type of fish.
In conclusion, healthy lifestyle habits, with nutrition being the top one, are crucial for favourable pregnancy outcomes. Both partners should eat healthy to improve fertility in the months leading up to pregnancy, and mothers need to ensure adequate consumption of a variety of nutrients during pregnancy. If you are concerned about your nutrition, fertility or pregnancy, you can consult a fertility specialist or clinical nutritionist.