This is a guest post from Chris Kresser of ChrisKresser.com.
As a clinician with a special interest in fertility and pregnancy nutrition, two of the most common questions my patients ask are:
I’m going to answer these questions in this article. But before I do, let’s first take a moment to discuss the importance of proper nutrition for fertility and pregnancy.
Numerous factors determine our health as adults, including nutrition, exercise, lifestyle and genetics. But recent research suggests another powerful influence on lifelong health: our mother’s nutritional status during (and even before) her pregnancy.
In fact, some researchers now believe the 9 months we spend in the womb are the most consequential period of our lives, permanently influencing the wiring of the brain and the function of organs like the heart, liver and pancreas. They also suggest that the conditions we encounter in utero shape everything from our susceptibility to disease, to our appetite and metabolism, to our intelligence and temperament.
The theory that the nutritional environment we encounter in the womb determines our lifelong health is known as the Developmental Origins Hypothesis. It was first proposed by British researcher David J. Barker in the 1980s to explain a seeming contradiction: as British prosperity increased, so did heart disease. Yet geographically, the highest rates of heart disease were found in the poorest places in Britain. Barker found that rather than smoking, dietary fat or some other lifestyle cause, the factor that was most predictive of whether an individual would develop premature heart disease (before the age of 65) was their weight at birth (PDF).
Barker found that infants carried to full term with birth weights between 8.5 and 9.5 pounds had a 45 percent lower risk of developing heart disease later in life than infants born at 5.5 pounds. (They also had a lower risk of stroke, a 70% lower risk of insulin resistance and a slightly lower risk of blood pressure later in life.) As the chart below demonstrates, the risk declined in a linear fashion between 5.5 and 9.5 pounds, but started to increase again as birth weight rose above 9.5 pounds.
Over the last 25 years, Barker’s original work has been reproduced and expanded. If you do a quick search on PubMed for “developmental origins of disease”, you’ll find references to the fetal origins of cancer, heart disease, allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease, diabetes, obesity, mental illness and degenerative conditions like arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The following list is just a small sampling of the literature on the subject:
These studies – and many more – have made it clear that the mother’s nutritional status leading up to and during pregnancy affects her baby’s health not only at birth and during early childhood, but for the rest of his or her life. This leads us to the obvious conclusion that proper maternal nutrition is crucial for boosting fertility and ensuring lifelong health for our children.
If you listen to the mainstream authorities, they’ll tell you the best diet during pregnancy is one that’s rich in whole grains and low in fat and animal protein. Some of my patients have even been told by their previous physicians or nutritionists that it’s dangerous not to eat grains during pregnancy!
Sound familiar? This is the same misguided advice dietitians have been giving to the general public for decades – and it’s just as wrong for aspiring parents and pregnant moms.
Let’s break out that trusty analytical tool called “common sense” to combat the notion that the Primal Blueprint diet isn’t safe during pregnancy, and that it’s somehow dangerous not to eat grains during pregnancy. If that were true, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Why? Because humans have eaten a paleolithic diet (without grains) for the vast majority of our evolutionary history.
Imagine the timeline of human existence as a football field (100 yards from end-zone to end-zone). If you started walking at one end of the field, the first 99.5 yards would represent all of human history up until the last 10,000 years. During those first 77,000 generations of human history, we survived and thrived on a paleolithic diet. It’s only in the last one-half yard that agriculture was developed and humans started regularly consuming grains.
Perhaps the more appropriate question is whether the Standard American Diet is safe. Infertility rates are already high, and they’re increasing at an alarming rate. 1 in 7 women today have trouble conceiving, and a recent study in the U.K. predicted that number could more than double (to 1 in 3) by 2020. While there are probably several reasons for this dramatic increase in infertility, the Standard American Diet is almost certainly one of the most important.
The Primal Blueprint diet is an excellent starting place for those wishing to conceive, or for women who are already pregnant or nursing. But within the context of the Primal Blueprint diet, there are certain foods and nutrients that are particularly beneficial during these periods.
Traditional cultures have known this for millennia. That’s why they have sacred fertility foods they feed to mothers-to-be and even fathers-to-be. These include nutrient dense foods like fish eggs, liver, bone marrow, egg yolks and other animal fats. For example, the Masai tribe in Africa only allowed couples to marry and become pregnant after spending several months drinking milk in the wet season when the grass is lush and the nutrient content of the milk is especially high.
With this in mind, here are the top 5 “superfoods” I recommend for fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
*Some women are scared to eat fish during pregnancy because of concerns about mercury levels. It turns out those concerns have been overblown. Read this article for more information.
Want to supercharge your fertility and promote lifelong health for your baby? Check out the Healthy Baby Code.