Before I conceived both of my children, I was at the peak of my physical health. I was hiking and practicing yoga daily, as well as eating an organic vegetarian diet. As my belly grew, these practices (except for the organic diet) began to wane; however, I still made an effort on most days. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that maternal diet is key to preventing childhood (and adult) obesity.
Studies involving rats show that when having access to junk food, pregnant rats ate roughly 40 percent more food and 56 percent more calories than rats who were fed just chow. Furthermore, once born, babies of the junk food rat mommas showed a preference for high fat and sugar foods and ate more than their chow fed peers. Does this research translate to humans?
Obesity is on the rise, especially in the United States, where over 1/3 of women of childbearing age are obese. When you consider about 1/3 of American’s calories come from junk food, what are junk food eating mommas doing to their kids? According to Barbara Kingsolver in her amazing book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
US farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980…And here is the shocking plot twist: as the farmers produced those extra calories, the food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn’t really want to eat 700 more calories a day…So did the American waistline. U.S. consumption of “added fats” has increased by one-third since 1975, and our HFCS [high fructose corn syrup] is up by 1000 percent.
I don’t think that any woman who has struggled with weight issues wants to pass that on to her children, but unless she loses weight before conceiving, she may be doing just that. One study found that women who underwent anti-obesity surgery had children with different tendencies towards being overweight whether they were conceived before or after the surgery.
An obese womb may have a different environment than that of a mother of normal weight. According to the New York Times:
Moreover, many factors contribute to someone’s becoming obese, and picking them apart is tricky. Added to that, an “obese” environment in the womb has two separate elements: the nutrients provided by the mother via the food she eats, and the hormonal environment of someone who is overweight. (Being obese can profoundly alter a woman’s hormonal profile.)…Why might this happen? Perhaps an “obese” environment in the womb alters the wiring of the developing brain so as to interfere with normal appetite control, fat deposition, taste in food, or metabolism. Studies on other animals suggest that parts of the brain that control appetite develop differently under “obese” conditions. And in humans, one study has found that babies born to obese mothers have lower resting metabolic rates than babies whose mothers are of normal weight.
I think we need to educate women to the risks of obesity on their unborn children; it may be the only way to reverse the epidemic short of removing all junk food from the American diet. I worried my plump breastfed babe would grow to an overweight child, but my prenatal health and diet ensured she would slim down to a normal weight once she became an active toddler. As a teacher and mother, I have empathy for overweight children as they struggle to fit in with their slimmer peers and find appropriate clothes to fit their bodies. Perhaps if women just gave up junk food while pregnant, these children would have a better chance at a normal weight.
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