Just how important is the maternal diet during pregnancy? New research shows a stronger link between the maternal diet and the child's future health than ever before.
A National Institutes of Health study found that children born to women whose diet included high proportions of refined grains and had gestational diabetes can have as much as double the risk of obesity by age 7 than children whose mothers had gestational diabetes and ate lower amounts of refined grains.
This link between maternal refined grain consumption and childhood obesity remained even when controlling for other factors that could influence the child's weight, such as physical activity level, or consumption of fruits, veggies, and sweets.
What about maternal drink habits?
It doesn't stop at food. Another study that appears in the Journal of Epidemiology found that children born to women with gestational diabetes and drank at least one artificially-sweetened beverage per day during pregnancy were twice as likely to be obese or overweight at age 7, compared to children born to women with gestational diabetes and drank water instead.
From these results, it appears that artificially-sweetened beverages are no better than sugar-sweetened beverages when it comes to reducing the risk of childhood obesity later in life.
Why are these findings so important? It is known that childhood obesity significantly increases the risk for several health problems later in life, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, and diabetes.
Although more research is necessary to expand these findings, there is a growing body of evidence showing the influence a mother's diet has on a future child.
Infant Flavor Preferences and Mom's Diet
Past studies have shown interesting links between maternal diets and childhood health outcomes or patterns. For instance, one study found that infants whose mothers consumed carrot juice during pregnancy showed a preference for carrot flavor.
As the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics puts it in an article "Parental Influence on Eating Behavior", the amniotic fluid that surrounds a fetus is a rich source of sensory exposure for infants and many of the flavors present in mom's diet can be present in this fluid.
Additionally, taste and smell are senses that are already functioning during fetal life.
Therefore, some of the first experiences one has with flavor can occur before birth as flavorful amniotic fluid is being swallowed (and sensed) by the fetus.
Clearly, a nice and early start to reducing childhood obesity can be the mom-to-be's diet during pregnancy. It appears maternal diets can set the stage for a child's food preferences and acceptance of healthier foods later in life.
Other Factors in Mom that Can Predict Childhood Obesity
Research shows that pregnant women with high BMIs are associated with an increased risk that the child will be obese by age 4. Reaching a healthy weight before pregnancy is a crucial way to prevent childhood obesity. Physical activity before and during pregnancy also improves the health of the mother while simultaneously decreasing the risk that her child wil develop obesity.
What does a "healthy" pregnancy look like?
Key habits for pregnant women include eating a variety of foods, getting an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals, achieving a healthy weight gain during pregnancy, and engaging in regular physical activity. Last but not least, it includes avoiding harmful substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and exposure to food poisoning.
Maternal dietary intakes of refined grains during pregnancy and growth through the first 7 y of life among children born to women with gestational diabetes, Zhu, Yeyi, et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.136291, published 7 June 2017.
Maternal consumption of artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy, and offspring growth through 7 years of age: a prospective cohort study, Cuilin Zhang et al., Journal of Epidemiology, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyx095, published 6 June 2017. Pediatrics. 2001 Jun;107(6):E88.
J Law Med Ethics. 2007; 35(1): 22–34.
Olson CM, Demment MM, Carling SJ, Strawderman MS. Associations Between Mothers’ and Their Children’s Weights at 4 Years of Age. Child Obesity. 2010 August 1; 6(4): 201-207
Mottola, MF. Exercise Prescription for Overweight and Obese Women: Pregnancy and Postpartum. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America. 2009; 36: 301-316.