development

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pregnant woman

THS reader Roselle sent in this question:

Is vitamin/mineral supplementation truly beneficial before & during pregnancy for women with a healthy diet?

The first thing I’d like to emphasize is the importance of this question. Adequate maternal nutrition prior to conception and during pregnancy can protect the baby from diabetes, stroke, heart disease, kidney disease and memory loss later in life.

Intuitively, most mothers know that what they eat will have a significant impact on the developing fetus. And traditional cultures have been aware of this for millennia. Special preconception and pregnancy diets have always emphasized foods that are particularly rich in certain nutrients known to promote healthy growth and development. In some cases, these groups provided special nutrients for fathers preparing to conceive as well.

Traditional cultures with access to the sea used fish eggs. Those that consumed dairy products used high-quality milk from the spring and fall when grass was green and rapidly growing. African groups whose water was low in iodine used the ashes of certain plant foods to supply this important element. These foods were always added to a foundational diet rich in liver and other organ meats, bones and skin, fats, seafood and whatever local plant foods were available.

In the Winter of 2007, Chris Masterjohn published a fantastic article called “Vitamins for Fetal Development: Conception to Birth” in the Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts Journal. Masterjohn remarks:

“Although modern science still has much research to accomplish in order to fully elucidate the value of traditional wisdom, it has already confirmed the fact that many of the nutritional factors that we now recognize as the most important to embryonic and fetal development are the same ones emphasized in traditional pregnancy and preconception diets.” (p.26)

What are these nutrients that both modern science and traditional wisdom recognize as essential? Briefly, they include:

  • Vitamin E: originally named “Fertility Factor X” in 1922 because rats could not reproduce without it. Recent research indicates it is almost certainly required for human reproduction.
  • Vitamin A: vitamin A is necessary for the differentiation and patterning of all the cells, tissues, and organs within the developing body. It is especially important for the development of the communication systems between the sense organs and the brain. Vitamin A deficiency during pregnancy has been shown to produce spontaneous abortion in several different species of animals.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays a role in lung development, and protects the newborn from tetany, convulsions and heart failure. Vitamin D probably plays a much larger role in fetal development than currently understood due to its interaction with vitamin A.
  • Vitamin K: relatively little is known about vitamin K’s role in embryonic and fetal development compared to vitamins A & D. However, cases of birth defects that occurred with mothers taking Wafarin (which depletes the body of vitamin K) suggest that vitamin K plays an essential role in the development of proper facial proportions and the fundamental development of the nervous system.
  • DHA: DHA may be necessary for the formation of neurons and for the synthesis of the important brain lipid phosphatidylserine. It is also the precursor to an important compound that protects the neurons from oxidative stress. The fetus hoards DHA from the mother and incorporates it into its brain at ten times the rate at which it can synthesize it.
  • Biotin: biotin is a B vitamin that has also been called “vitamin H”. Researchers have recently discovered that marginal biotin deficiency during pregnancy is extremely common. Biotin deficiency has been shown to cause birth defects in rats. Whether this extends to humans is currently unknown, but there is little reason not to increase biotin intake during pregnancy as a precaution.
  • Folate: the importance of folate during pregnancy is widely known. It is necessary for the production of new DNA, and new DNA is needed for new cells. Adequate folate intake prevents spinal cord and brain defects and increases birth weight. It may also prevent spontaneous abortion, mental retardation and deformities of the mouth, face and heart.
  • Choline: a low intake of choline during pregnancy is associated with a four-fold increased risk of spinal cord and brain defects. Choline plays a direct role in the development of the brain; in particular, for the formation of neurons and synapses.
  • Glycine: the amino acid glycine is “conditionally essential” during pregnancy. This means that while we can normally make enough of it ourselves to meet our needs, during pregnancy women must obtain it from the diet. It is required for protein synthesis in the fetus, and is almost certainly a limiting factor for fetal growth.

Based on the established role of the nutrients listed above, Masterjohn makes the following recommendations:

Nutritional recommendations for preconception and pregnancy

  • Take a daily dose of high-vitamin cod liver oil (available online from Radiant Life and Green Pasture) to obtain 20,000 IU of vitamin A and 2,000 IU of vitamin D, and 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids (roughly 1 3/4 teaspoons per day).
  • Grass-fed animal fats supply vitamins E and K2; palm oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and freshly ground grains are also sources of vitamin E; fermented foods (cheese, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.) are also good sources of vitamin K.
  • Biotin can be obtained from liver and egg yolks. Cooked egg whites can be obtained in moderation, and raw egg yolks (from organic, pastured chickens of course) can be added to smoothies and cream to boost biotin status.
  • Folate can be obtained from liver, legumes, beets and greens. Choline can be obtained from grass-fed dairy, egg yolks, liver, meat, cruciferous vegetables, nuts and legumes.
  • Muscle meats and eggs should be used along with skin, bones and gelatin-rich broths to obtain glycine.

The answer to Roselle’s original question largely depends upon what is meant by “a healthy diet”. The low-fat, nutrient-depleted diet that is currently considered to be “healthy” by the medical establishment is likely to be deficient in several key nutrients, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins A, D & K and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. However, even a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet may need to be supplemented with additional foods or additional servings of foods already in the diet.

Most of these can and should be obtained from local and organic foods. The exception is cod liver oil, which one of nature’s highest sources of vitamins A & D and a rich source of DHA as well. Not all cod liver oil is created alike, however. Most commercial brands contain synthetic vitamin A & D, which are known to be toxic at high doses. Unfortunately, this means you will have to order high-vitamin cod liver oil from a reputable company online. The brands I recommend are Green Pasture High-Vitamin Fermented Cod Liver Oil or High-Vitamin Cod Liver Oil, and Radiant Life Cod Liver Oil.

Finally, I highly recommend obtaining the Winter 2007 “Wise Traditions” journal and reading the full article by Chris Masterjohn. It will eventually be available on the Weston A. Price Foundation website, but it can take up to one year from the original publication time for an article to be posted to the website.

kids shoes
The Healthy Skeptic reader Jessica wrote in with this topic suggestion:

“I like the “what to feed children” idea. But it has to be food they will actually EAT.”

The question of how to nourish our children so they develop into healthy adults is one of the most important questions we can ask. Tragically, the answers that the medical mainstream has come up with have contributed to unprecedented epidemics of childhood disease and endangered the health and well-being of our children.

The numbers of overweight and obese children worldwide are expected to climb dramatically by 2010, according to a study by Youfa Wang, PhD, MD at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. By the end of the decade, 46 percent of children in North and South America are projected to be overweight and 15 percent will be obese. It’s been assumed that U.S. life expectancy would rise indefinitely, but a new data analysis which was published as a special report in the March 17, 2005 issue of New England Journal of Medicine suggests that this trend is about to reverse itself – due to the rapid rise in obesity, especially among children.

Increasing numbers of children are being treated for depression, according to a 2004 study in the British Journal of Medicine. A 1999 report in California from the state’s Department of Developmental Services found that autism had increased by 273 percent from 1987 to 1998. Current estimates for the incidence of autism are as high as 1 in 120. A national review by The Advocacy Institute in 2002 revealed that learning disabilities in children increased by 30 percent from 1990 to 2000.

These studies show that our children are more obese, more depressed, and have more learning disabilities and behavioral problems than ever before. What could be the cause of such a dramatic change?

Although each of these diseases is complex and multifactorial, it is safe to say that diet and nutrition play a significant role in all of them. For example, consider the key nutrients for brain development in children:

Key nutrients for brain development

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Choline
  • DHA
  • Zinc
  • Tryptophan
  • Cholesterol

Many parents probably know that these nutrients aren’t found in the refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils and sugars which form the bedrock of the standard American diet. Yet many parents may be unaware that even foods widely assumed to be nutritional – including packaged foods commonly described as “organic”, “natural” or “fortified” – are themselves highly processed and stripped of nutritional value, and little better than their “non-organic” alternatives.

So what should we be feeding our children to ensure healthy growth and development? The following “First Steps” recommended by children’s health advocacy group Nourishing Our Children will get you started:

First steps to healthier children

  1. Replace sugar with natural sweeteners like honey and rapadura.
  2. Replace fruit juices with whole, raw milk.
  3. Replace breakfast cereals with non-nitrate bacon, eggs from hens on pasture, whole milk yogurt, homemade kefir, soaked oatmeal or soaked, wholegrain pancakes.
  4. Replace pasteurized dairy products with raw and cultured dairy.
  5. Eliminate all processed soy foods from your household (this includes soy milk, “protein bars” with soy, baked tofu products and all “soy fast food”).
  6. Replace polyunsaturated vegetable oils and trans fats with traditional fats such as butter, olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, lard, and tallow.
  7. Replace processed, convenience foods (boxed, packaged, prepared and canned food items) with fresh, organic, whole foods
  8. Provide a daily dose of high vitamin cod liver oil (with no synthetic vitamins added)

In contrast to the bland, unsatisfying (and dangerous) low-fat diet recommended by medical authorities, kids naturally love the foods in a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. However, it is true that if they’ve been on a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates for a long time, there will be an adjustment period as they transition away from those highly processed foods.

My suggestion is to take one item on the list above at a time, and be gentle with yourself. It may take a while longer that way to get to where you want to be, but it’s worth the effort! Some of the changes will be more difficult than others. For example, most children (and adults) prefer the taste of saturated fats like butter, cream and whole-fat dairy to low-fat alternatives such as vegetable oil and skim milk – but may not yet have acquired a taste for cod liver oil!

I’ve provided links to some articles below with some helpful ideas on how to encourage even the most finicky eaters to enjoy nutrient-dense foods and some ideas for quick and healthy brown-bag lunch suggestions for parents.

Recommended links

  • Articles on children’s health – Weston A. Price Foundation
  • Feeding Our Children, by Thomas Cowan, M.D.
  • Taking the Icky out of Picky Eaters
  • Foods to Tantalize Toddlers and Preschoolers
  • Packing the Perfect Lunch Box
  • Nourishing Our Children – children’s health advocacy group

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