The call comes as a series of three papers published in The Lancet state that adults’ health and what they ate in the months and years before they start trying for a baby can have long-term implications for the growth and development of their kids.
The authors are calling for better guidance and support for individuals planning pregnancy, and increased public health measures to reduce obesity and improve nutrition.
“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,” said lead author of the papers, Professor Judith Stephenson from UCL. “Raising awareness of preconception health, and increasing availability of support to improve health before conception will be crucial. “This isn’t about provoking fear or blaming individuals.”
The authors presented two new analyses of the diets and health of women of reproductive age (18-42 years old) in the UK and Australia. Using data from 509 women of reproductive age in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, they estimate that many women in the UK are not nutritionally prepared for pregnancy (ie. they are not getting enough key nutrients including vitamins A and B12, calcium and zinc), and almost all women of reproductive age (96%) have iron and folate dietary intakes below the recommendation for pregnancy (14.8mg per day, and 400µg per day, respectively). This is, however, something that could be rectified in less than a month through supplements.
Education from an early age – ideally from adolescence – about the need to maintain a healthy diet and weight will not only improve the health of individuals, but also the health and quality of life of future generations."
Professor Janice Rymer, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
The authors are calling for interventions that start years before pregnancy. They stress the importance of improving everyone’s health from an early age as a way to avoid poor preconception health, and improve the health of future generations. “Support for improving nutrition before conception needs to be offered in ways that engage adolescents in thinking about their diets and health, and the implications of this in later life, in pregnancy, and for future generations,” they stated.
For adults with no immediate plans to become pregnant, the authors call for social change that supports improved public awareness of preconception health. For adults planning to become pregnant, they call for improved support and practical tools for preconception health.
Commenting on the Lancet articles, Professor Janice Rymer, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said the ”highly significant” research highlighted the importance of nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period. “We are extremely concerned by the findings that 96% of women of reproductive age have iron and folate dietary intakes below the recommendation for pregnancy,” she added. “This is yet another piece of evidence adding to the overwhelming need for the government to add folic acid to flour. This simple measure will reach women most at risk in our society who have poor dietary and socioeconomic status, as well as those women who may not have planned their pregnancy.”
Professor Rymer said she supported the call for public health measures to ensure individuals are nutritionally prepared for conception and pregnancy, “Education from an early age – ideally from adolescence – about the need to maintain a healthy diet and weight will not only improve the health of individuals, but also the health and quality of life of future generations,” she said.
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