Ask the Expert: What to eat when trying for a baby

A neuroscientist reveals low protein levels around conception can have detrimental effects

A proper diet pre-conception and early in pregnancy can lower the risk of your child getting diseases in later life
Lisa Salmon

WE'RE trying for a baby – does it make any difference what I eat before I find out I'm pregnant?

Neuroscientist Dr Sandrine Willaime-Morawek, an associate professor in stem cells and neurobiology at the University of Southampton, who has just led a study into maternal protein intake around conception, says: "From research conducted on young women, we already know what you eat before getting pregnant and at the beginning of the pregnancy (before finding out you're pregnant) is important to lower the risks of your baby getting diseases in later life, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and also neurological diseases like schizophrenia.

"We showed recently, using a mouse model, that poor protein in a mother's diet in early pregnancy, around the time of conception, can have a lasting effect on brain development.

"Our study is the first to demonstrate clearly that poor maternal nutrition during the first days of pregnancy, known as the pre-implantation period, can have adverse effects on early brain development and long-lasting consequences in adults.

"The mouse study reveals that a maternal diet low in protein during this critical period reduces the production of neural stem cells, the cells that make our nerve cells in the brain, leading to errors in the timing and number of nerve cells formed – and ultimately resulting in poor memory in the adult.

"Previous studies have shown protein reduction in the diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding can damage the brain of the baby, leading to lasting effects for coordination and cognitive function. However, the importance of nutrition at the very start of pregnancy for brain development has been unknown, until now.

"Our research shows poor maternal nutrition from conception adversely affects brain development and adult memory. We also show the pre-implantation period is key in determining adult physical characteristics.

"Significant effects were found with only a mild nutritional challenge – half of the recommended protein amount – highlighting the significance of this period for adult health.

"So, yes – it does make a difference what you eat before finding out you're pregnant, to decrease the risks of your baby getting diseases later in life.

"Very subtle differences in the mother's nutrition around the time of conception can have detrimental long-term consequences for the health of the child. A healthy and balanced diet before, during and after pregnancy will help your baby grow and develop optimally."

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