You may already know that the food a woman eats while pregnant and breastfeeding has a direct effect on her developing baby, but you may not know that what a woman eats prior to conceiving is just as important.
Good nutrition before becoming pregnant creates a healthy body that will be ready to nourish a developing baby. While a woman provides the environment that supports and nurtures her developing child, society must provide the supportive and nurturing environment for adolescent girls and women who may become the next generation of mothers. The food environment we create for adolescent girls, expecting women and mothers has the power to change society’s overall health. By working together to ensure easy access to nutritious food for all, we can ensure the health of future generations.
Here’s how it works
A woman builds up nutrition reserves in her tissues throughout her life. While pregnant, the developing baby draws from these reserves as well as from the nutrition a woman consumes on a daily basis. Powerful evidence now shows that the nutrition available early in development can generate permanent changes in the body structure and function of the developing child. These changes in the developing baby are not caused by altering the baby’s genes, but by the “switches” that determine whether genes are turned on or off. If a woman’s diet is poor, these switches program the genes of a baby to be more likely to develop chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes later in life. These changes in the gene regulation can then be passed on to the next generation.
Stop for a moment and put on your thinking cap, because this next part gets a little tricky. A baby girl is born with the eggs that may someday create her own children. Those eggs were nourished by her mother while the baby girl was developing in her mother’s womb. This means that a woman is not only pregnant with her daughter, but she is also nourishing the eggs in her daughter that may someday become her grandchildren.
Want to try that again? Let’s think about it from a different perspective: the egg that became you was nourished while your mother developed in your grandmother’s womb. That means that the nourishment your grandmother experienced throughout her life and the social stresses she was subjected to affected the egg that became you. Thus, your grandmother’s health has an impact on your vulnerability for developing chronic disease. In this way it is easy to see how a woman’s nutrition has broad effects on the health of future generations.
Some adults, including women with older children, may be distressed to learn now about the effects of diet before and during pregnancy. However, there is a bright side to this story. We all have an opportunity to influence the long-term health for ourselves and our families through our diet and lifestyle. It’s all about avoiding the “second hit.” The first hit was how we grew before we were born and during infancy. The second hit refers to how stresses later in life affect our risk for disease. Later stresses include poor diets and severe social stresses like poverty and racism that determine how likely the vulnerabilities we were born with are to actually develop into chronic disease. So while a mother may no longer be able to change her older child’s disease risk through her own diet, she can model for them the benefits of a healthy diet now. Likewise, adults born at a disadvantage, like having low birthweight, can make an effort to eat as nutritiously as possible.
Ultimately, during nearly every stage of a woman’s life, food is preventative medicine. Her diet and overall health are vitally important to reducing her own risk for chronic disease as well as for eliminating her children’s (and grandchildren’s) likelihood of suffering from chronic disease in adulthood. And isn’t a healthy future the greatest legacy we can leave them?
This means that with changes in our food culture to support healthier living for all, we can hope to eradicate certain chronic diseases within just one to three generations by simply ensuring that everyone has access to a more nutritious diet. Imagine a future without diabetes or heart disease! So while the message “Eat healthy!” may not be a new one, it takes on a new meaning when we think about the impact to future generations. It’s never too late (or too early) to better the future.
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Share this article with friends or family who are pregnant or parents of growing children.
Involve the whole family
Get your kids involved in meal planning, food shopping and cooking. While you are doing it, talk about what eating a healthy diet based on whole foods can do for them over the course of their lives. Pack the leftovers from the meals they helped make in their school lunches so they can talk to their friends about the fun of cooking with and eating healthy foods.
Make growing food fun
Get a group of parents and community members together to encourage your local school to start a garden. It’s a great learning experience for kids that can be woven into lots of different subjects from health, to science, to reading. The produce the kids grow can be used in the school kitchen, and highlighted in the menu. Even better, arrange a cooking class demonstration for kids where they can help use the produce they grow, and eat it too.