News from Australia this week: What you eat in pregnancy matters for your baby’s mental health. You already knew that, right?
Apparently, it surprised everybody that “mums who eat more unhealthy foods, such as refined cereals, sweet drinks, and salty snacks, during pregnancy have children with more behavioral problems, such as tantrums and aggression.” Children were followed to age five. The researchers also stated, “These new findings suggest that unhealthy and ‘junk’ foods may have an impact on the risk for mental health problems in children, and they add to the growing body of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia.”
These findings are new?
They aren’t really. Much research has noted negative impacts on brain and development from weak nutrition. But here in the US, where the pharmaceutical industry enjoys unfettered profiteering on psychiatric medications for kids, we don’t often see doctors talking about food or supplements.
We all would likely intuit that if a pregnant woman eats a steady diet of nutritionally vacant foods, her baby is going to suffer. But this collaboration between Australian academics and a large Norwegian cohort of moms and babies puts it plain: That suffering can extend to what we categorize as psychiatric disorders.
Information like this doesn’t flow through a pediatrician’s office too often. What does flow through there are drug sales reps, dropping off samples and pamphlets for medications like Adderall, Abilify, Risperdal, or Straterra. Children as young as two years old have come into my practice on psychiatric medication for behavior problems or anxiety. While these may help some children, there is no question that they can also do harm or not help at all. Meanwhile, nutrition supports driven by a thorough baseline assessment and professionally monitored are reliably safe and replenishing for a child’s whole body.
Whatever a child eats, whatever a pregnant woman eats, whatever a baby eats, that is what that individual’s brain has to grow on. And a human brain needs a lot of building material. We must eat at least 29 different vitamins and minerals to not die – that is, we can’t make those nutrients within our own cells. We have to eat them. Then there are at least eight to ten different amino acids we have to ingest in order to live – meaning that we need varied and robust sources of protein. And, we must eat certain fats that are required for countless metabolic functions and cell or tissue structure. Brains in particular need ample and varied fats to grow normally.
Those are just the basics that keep humans from keeling over. A baby can be born at term, with all its moving parts, and at a normal weight, as long as those nutrients are on board in the right amounts. But will that baby be vibrant and healthy? Will s/he start off with a series of ear infections and malaise, colicky insomnia (which can slow a baby’s growth if entrenched enough), weak muscle tone, sketchy developmental progress? As far as pediatrics is practiced today in the US, a trouble-shoot with mom about food and nutrients is not the usual go-to.
It certainly can be. Optimal nutrition can support that baby for thriving to potential, and it can work for the baby in utero too. Growing, feeling contented, sleeping and eating well, and comfortably eliminating come from the right food. Besides those basic nutrients mentioned earlier, there are dozens of compounds that don’t make the daily recommended intake (DRI) list of the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board that babies probably need too. These are things that come from whole foods and varied diets that are plant-strong, rich in toxin-free fats and oils, and balanced with proteins from unprocessed, unadulterated sources (my protein picks include grass-fed organic meats, organic eggs, raw nuts, seeds, and their butters, vegetables and legumes, and even raw goat or cow’s milk if available). A varied, unprocessed food diet can deliver things like omega 3 fatty acids, lutein, carnitine, carnosine, taurine, arginine, fructooligosaccharides, fiber… not to mention supplement options like coenzyme Q-10, methylated cobalamin, betaine, alpha-lipoic acid, chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine… Have I lost you yet? I haven’t even begun. But suffice it to say, these things don’t come from processed cereals, or factory-farmed, processed dairy foods with growth hormones and pesticide residues, or sugary snacks like yogurt squeeze tubes.
Whatever your baby eats, that is all your baby’s brain has to work with, to learn, grow, sleep, develop, and thrive. Whatever your toddler or school aged child eats, the same is still true. We truly are what we eat. We can only function at the level of the weakest nutrition pieces we feed our brains and bodies, because these pieces are an ensemble – they can only truly work when all pieces are present at optimal amounts.
For children struggling with psychiatric conditions, make sure it isn’t a nutrition condition first. See my book Special Needs Kids Go Pharm Free for strategies and trouble shoot. And if there is ever a time to splurge on home cooked, organic, real food, it’s when your pregnant. Give your baby that great start.