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Saving your baby from womb hazards

columns Updated: Mar 02, 2013 22:50 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Eating food high in fat and sugar during pregnancy can rewire your baby’s brain and turn her into a junk food addict even before birth, claimed a study this week that found junk foods had the same addictive effect on brain chemistry as opium, heroin, and morphine.

The way food dunked in sugar and fat take over the baby’s developing brain in the womb is simple. It causes changes in the signalling pathways in the baby’s brain responsible for releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. This rewiring makes the baby build up a greater tolerance to sugar and fat and results in her eating more of it before her brain tells her to stop.

This discovery comes within weeks of scientists announcing babies of overweight women have thicker artery walls — a sign of heart disease — than those born to mum’s with healthy weight, which put them at higher risk of heart disease from birth. Babies born to overweight and undernourished mothers — babies weighing under 2.5 kg — have a higher chance of developing diabetes, heart disease or stroke in later life than babies born to healthy mums.

Since I’m not overweight and have no food cravings, now or ever, my son and I are in a relatively good place. But watching your weight and avoiding junk food is not enough. There’s pile of evidence available to show that almost everything you do or don’t before and during pregnancy affects your baby’s health after birth.

A stressful pregnancy — physical or emotional — damages the unborn child’s health for years to come. A study of English mothers-to-be showed that going through a major emotional upheaval, such as a bereavement or separation, raised the chances of the baby falling sick by the age of four. Two emotional breakdowns during pregnancy raised the odds five-fold.

Then there’s lifestyle. Babies of women who smoke during pregnancy are at a higher risk of obesity, irrespective of the mother’s weight, as are children born to women with gestational diabetes (high blood sugars during pregnancy in women without previously diagnosed diabetes). Apart from miscarriages, drinking alcohol during pregnancy causes low birth weight, heart and learning and behavioural disorders, while binging may cause what’s Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can result in facial deformities, physical and emotional disorders and poor memory or a short attention span. Much like the junk food addiction, the intrauterine environment of a woman with gestational diabetes resets the offspring’s satiety point, making them predisposed to eat more.

Of course, best option is for women planning to have a baby to get their act together, which is always easier said than done. Overweight women should try to lose weight before getting pregnant than after, and then stay active and shun junk food, cigarettes and alcohol.

For new mum’s who’ve not managed to stay on straight and narrow path, early interventions can lower the damage. Breast feed your baby exclusively for six months. This not just lowers the baby’s chance of becoming overweight, but also helps build her immunity and lowers risk of food and water-borne infections, such as diarrhoea.

If your children are older, make sure they spend offline time with friends and eat home-cooked food as much as possible. If a pizza or a burger is what they want, make it at home and serve it with a side salad. What you put in it will be far healthier than what’s served at their school cafeteria or the neighbourhood restaurant.

Family meals are a good way to go not just for children but also for you. I find that just avoiding lunch meetings, cafeteria food and mid-day snacks gets my weight down by a kilogram in less than a week. If that’s not incentive enough, it’s time you considered taking out a large health insurance.