Monday, January 10, 2011
The effect of prenatal, pre-conception and lactational nutrition has always been at the center of my interest in food and health. The majority of health care practitioners are deathly afraid of discussing pre-natal and pre-conception nutrition with women because they don't want women to feel guilty if their child has a health or behavioral issue that might be related to Mom's poor nutrition. Health care practitioners are afraid to discuss issues of nutrition with breastfeeding Moms (lactational nutrition) for the very real reason that if Mom thinks her diet is bad for her baby she will quit breastfeeding rather than change her own diet. We have lost touch with an incredibly important aspect of reproduction that was a hallmark of traditional cultures: what you eat is directly correlated with the health of your child. Even the most "primitive" of peoples had special nutrition practises for newly married couples (preconception) or pregnant and breastfeeding women. Foods such as raw organ meats, fish eggs, and bitter herbs and weeds were carefully collected by the families and hunters of a group and reserved for members of the group who were in child-bearing mode. Gathering these special foods was performed at great risk to the group often involving trading with an enemy or treacherous expeditions. When asked why they take such risk to procure special foods traditional peoples don't say "because decades of research finally convinced us that adequate folic acid prevents neurologic defects". They say "because without these sacred foods for the parents the children are not strong". The reality of hunter-gatherers was that a child with a significant health issue at birth would die and even a small issue, which we don't even consider a disability today, like poor eyesight or crooked teeth, would likely mean that child did not reach adult hood or could not hunt or support the group. There is no room in this discussion for blame. Guilt is not powerful. Knowledge is power. With knowledge and power comes responsibility. Responsibility is certainly a heavy burden at times, especially when it comes to raising children. During the last few centuries of industrialization we have forgotten our sacred food practises, so we rely on research. Recent research finally is getting around to handing some of the power for healthy babies over to the Dads!! We mostly think of men as sperm donors who either are "good" husbands and fathers or "bad" ones. Our concept of the importance of preconception nutrition for men has been stuck at knowing that if men had really poor nutrition their fertility would drop and they would have trouble fathering a child at all. Slowly, slowly research is digging more deeply into the effect of a father's nutrition on his future children. A fascinating study just published discusses the relationship between the protein intake of males and the cholesterol and lipid synthesis of their offspring:
"The phenomenon, called epigenetic inheritance – where changes in gene expression not caused by changes to the underlying DNA sequence are passed from a parent to a child – may be relevant to a number of illnesses.
Researchers fed different diets to two groups of male mice – the first set receiving a standard diet, while the second received a low-protein diet.
All females were fed the same, standard diet.
They observed that offspring of the mice fed the low-protein diet exhibited a marked increase in the genes responsible for lipid and cholesterol synthesis in comparison to offspring of the control group fed the standard diet – indicating an increased risk of heart disease.
Previous studies have suggested a father's lifestyle can come back to genetically affect his kids – but were unable to rule out socioeconomic factors."
I look forward to the day when men and women will discuss freely and openly with their health care practitioner and their families, the impact of preconception, prenatal and lactational nutrition on the next generation. In the meantime, although my childbearing days are firmly behind me, I'm not going to be one of the low-protein lab rats. Did you know that a couple pounds of chicken sausage cooked up on a Sunday evening is better than an Instant Breakfast on Monday morning? Sometimes I have been know to run late and lack organization in the morning, so while finding homework, computer cords and packing lunches, I just throw my chicken sausage into the nearest appliance that provides heat (pan on the stove, toaster oven) and then I dump it in a bowl and it becomes travel food. You just never know when, at the stoplight during your morning commute, a movement in the car next to you will catch your eye, you will look over expecting to see someone sipping a syrupy "coffee", eating a "breakfast sandwich" or applying mascara while talking on the phone. Instead you will see a completely organized, saucy mother of two boys, eating sausage with her fingers out of a hand made bowl. Mother and boys might be singing along with some classic rock at the same time because eating sausage in the car just calls out for accompaniment by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I believe Lynyrd Skynyrd is also the proper way to prepare for Spanish quizzes and multiplication tests. Try it.