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They are what you eat

Audience interaction at a recent Café Scientifique event.

By Meaghan Whelan

A Café Scientifique event titled They Are What You Eat: The Relationship Between Maternal Diet and Child Health brought together Memorial researchers and the general public recently to talk broadly about the connection between maternal diet and heart disease, diabetes and obesity in children.

Dr. Robert Bertolo, Canada Research Chair in Human Nutrition, noted the importance of balance in a mother-to-be's diet.

"The intake of nutrients like folate and choline can impact the programming of metabolism. Too many or too few nutrients can permanently program DNA, so it is important for mothers and mothers-to-be to be aware of their own and their infant's nutrient intake."

His advice for those trying to achieve the proper balance of nutrients is to follow the recommendations of Canada's Food Guide.

"A great deal of research has gone into the development of Canada's Food Guide over the years, but the advice hasn't essentially changed. It recommends eating 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, something that less than 10 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are doing today."

One audience member asked about the impact of artificial sweeteners, which Dr. Bertolo said was okay in moderation.

"Aspartame is one of the most widely studied substances in our food system, and there has not been a credible link between aspartame consumption and significant health risks. One or two packets a day shouldn't be a concern for anybody."

Dr. Sukhinder Cheema, a professor of biochemistry, spoke about her research into the type and amount of fatty acids consumed during pregnancy.

"A diet rich in polyunsaturated fats offers protective factors against heart disease for both the mother and child," she said. "Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat can also contribute to healthy brain and eye development, as omega-3 is high in DHA, which the developing fetus needs in the third trimester."

Dr. Cheema says two servings of fish a week, which is the recommended serving for the general population, is also recommended for pregnant or nursing mothers. One audience member raised concerns about the levels of mercury in fish, and Dr. Cheema recommended salmon, mackerel and halibut and avoiding fresh tuna. Dr. Cheema also noted that while fish is the best source of omega-3, it is also found naturally in walnuts, flaxseed, kiwi and canola oil and in supplements.

Dr. Joan Crane, maternal fetal medicine specialist and professor of obstetrics and gynecology, spoke about appropriate weight gain during pregnancy to minimize adverse outcomes.

"Health Canada has developed recommendations for healthy weight gain based on the mother's body mass index (BMI). Gaining more than is recommended can lead to a higher risk of complications for mothers and babies."

Health Canada suggests that if a mother has a pre-pregnancy BMI of 18.5-24.9, she should gain between 25-35 pounds. If her BMI is between 25-29.9, she should gain 15-25 pounds and if her BMI is greater than 30, she should gain between 11-20 pounds. Mothers with a BMI below 18.5 should gain between 28-40 pounds.

Dr. Crane responded to an audience question about the risks associated with being underweight while pregnant by explaining there may be difficulties becoming pregnant, and babies may be born pre-term or with lower birth weights.

Dr. Crane recommended pregnant women, as well as those looking to become pregnant within three months, take a multivitamin with folic acid.

"Ideally, the folate should be circulating in the mother's system so that it is present at conception and the first few weeks of pregnancy. This can reduce the risk of neural tube defects, cleft palates and some pediatric cancers."
In terms of general advice, all speakers advocated focusing on fruits and vegetables and being physically active for 30 minutes per day.

This event was sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Café Scientifique program. Café Scientifiques are events for the general public aimed at sparking informal discussion around new ideas and issues in science, technology and health. It was hosted by the Office of the Vice-President (Research).