An academic from Newcastle University has co-authored a series of articles claiming that parental diets can have a huge effect on the lifelong health of children.

Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, Professor John Mathers – from the Health Nutritional Research Centre at Newcastle University – argues that parents should prepare for pregnancy by carefully considering their diets and lifestyles.

Professor Mathers said, “How well we are nourished during early development in the womb affects health and well-being for the rest of our lives.”

“Waiting until you know that you are pregnant may be too late to benefit from improving your diet, stopping smoking and becoming more active.”

“For the health of the next generation, prospective mothers and fathers should start early, eat a healthier diet with lots of vegetables and fruit, and avoid putting on weight.”

Professor Mathers, and the other writers of the articles, studied the diets and health of women of reproductive age (18-42) in the UK and Australia.

The lead author of the articles, Professor Judith Stephenson, from University College London, said, “The preconception period is a critical time when parental health – including weight, metabolism and diet – can influence the risk of future chronic disease in children, and we must now re-examine public health policy to help reduce this risk.”

“While the current focus on risk factors, such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake, is important, we also need new drives to prepare nutritionally for pregnancy for both parents.”

“Raising awareness of preconception health and increasing the availability of support to improve health before conception will be crucial.”

“This isn’t about provoking fear or blaming individuals – our analysis establishes the importance of the health of the next generation, stresses societal responsibility and demands strong local, national and international leadership.”

The evidence indicates that smoking, high alcohol and caffeine consumption, poor diets, obesity and malnutrition can have a genetic, cellular, metabolic and physiological influence on the development of an unborn baby.

These influences can affect the health of the child throughout its life, making it more prone to heart, metabolic, immune system and brain conditions.

Maternal obesity seems to be an especially significant factor as this may influence the development of the egg and the embryo and lead to a higher risk of disease later in life.

But obesity in fathers is a risk factor too as it can lower sperm quality, which may also result in a greater risk of disease among offspring.

It is not, however, clear if paternal obesity has as much of an effect as obesity among mothers.

Another issue is mothers being deficient in certain nutrients. Experts estimate that 96% of UK women have daily intakes of iron and folate that are below recommended levels for pregnancy.

The authors of the articles suggest that – as well as individual mothers and fathers preparing for pregnancy – there should be more support in wider society too.

The authors believe that schools should help young adults to prepare for pregnancy and to think more about nutrition and health. They also argue that general public awareness of the importance of preconception health should be improved and that the food industry should work alongside the government to boost awareness of the issue.

(Featured image courtesy of Sara Neff, from Flickr Creative Commons)

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