As a medical doctor, the father of three grown children, and the grandfather of four growing grandsons (ages 1, 3, 5, and 8), I have spent decades studying the science behind the nutritional advice given to couples beginning their family. There are fatal gaps between the truth about the right diet for making a healthy baby and what prospective parents are told. The result is parents’ dreams for the perfect child are unnecessarily destroyed by infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, difficult deliveries, Cesarean sections, failure to thrive, larger-than-normal growth, and retarded physical, mental, and emotional development.
Thirty-eight years ago, as a general practitioner working on a sugar plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii, I had the opportunity to catch over 100 babies (without dropping one). The nutritional advice I was taught to give pregnant women back then was to eat a “well-balanced diet” from the four major food groups, with an emphasis on four servings of dairy products and three servings of “protein” (meat, poultry, fish and eggs) daily. Few of my patients followed my counsel because they were from recently immigrated, low-income Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino families still eating traditional rice-based diets. This basic food resulted in pregnancies and deliveries that were largely uneventful.
Over the past four decades doctors and dietitians have successfully persuaded expectant mothers to eat “a well-balanced diet,” and as a result, pregnancy has become synonymous with sickness. Women spend nine months in misery: fat and fatigued with chronic indigestion and constipation. At least one in ten becomes very ill with a condition known as “preeclampsia” and one in twenty develops “gestational diabetes.” Too often all of this suffering ends with major surgery and an imperfect child.
The facts speak for themselves:
* Obesity in the general population, as well as in pregnant women, has doubled over the past three decades. Now two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight and 34 percent are obese. The rise in incidence of gestational diabetes has paralleled that of type-2 diabetes.
* The national United States Cesarean section rate was 4.5 percent, near an optimal range of 5 to 10 percent, in 1965, when it was first measured. Now 31.8 percent of births in the United States are through the mother’s abdominal wall (Cesarean births in 1997). Worse yet, in a few other developed countries more than half of all women deliver their babies in an operating room. For example, in Brazil the Cesarean rate is 77.2 percent for women who attend private clinics.
* Rates of birth defects, preterm births, and low birth-weight babies have been rising steadily since the mid-1980s. Birth defects occur in 1 in 33 births (3 percent); however, when developmental disabilities, which become fully apparent in older children, are included, the rates have been estimated to exceed 10 percent of births.
* The number of women who die each year from causes directly related to childbirth had more than doubled in California since 1996, according to California Watch.
Pregnancy Does Not Change the Human Diet
The heightened nutritional demands of pregnancy cause a woman to consume an additional 80,000 calories and two pounds of protein to grow her baby. Importantly, the proper source of these nutrients remains the same whether a woman is pregnant or not.
All populations of trim, healthy people throughout verifiable human history have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch. Examples of once thriving populations include Japanese, Chinese, and other Asians eating sweet potatoes, buckwheat and/or rice; Incas in South America eating potatoes; Mayas and Aztecs in Central America eating corn; and Egyptians in the Middle East eating wheat. Meat provided very few, if any, nutrients, and dairy foods were nonexistent. Therefore, scientific documentation of what most people have eaten over at least the past 13,000 years convincingly supports my claim that the ideal diet for pregnant women is based on starches (rice, corn, potatoes, beans, etc.) with the addition of green and yellow vegetables and fruits.
Obesity Leads to Cesarean Births
In modern societies following the Western diet, one-third or more of all women give birth unnaturally. Something major must be wrong.
Many explanations have been proposed for the high rates of Cesarean sections seen these days. However, one answer is obvious: In addition to the expanding epidemic of obesity among adults caused by the rich Western diet, this same food causes babies to grow too large to fit through their mothers’ birth canals. Full-term infants weighing eight to twelve pounds cannot easily fit through their mothers’ birth canals, which are designed for five- to seven-pound babies. The larger the mother, the larger the baby, and the higher the risk of emergency Cesarean birth and injury to mother and infant.
In anticipation of larger babies, elective Cesarean sections are also on the rise and have resulted in many infants being delivered before term. The average time a fetus spends in the womb has fallen by seven days in the United States since 1992. Early birth adversely affects lung and brain development and increases the risk of infections and death of newborns.
Preeclampsia Is Serious Sickness of Pregnancy
Preeclampsia is a set of conditions that include hypertension with generalized damage to the blood vessels, kidneys, and liver. It occurs in as many as 10 percent of pregnancies, usually in the second or third trimester. This condition results from the rich Western diet and is less common in women following a diet higher in fiber and potassium. Both of these nutrients are abundant in a plant food-based diet.
“The Farm” is a community of young people in Summertown, Tennessee. Members follow a vegan diet (no animal-derived foods) and the outcomes of pregnancy have been reported to be excellent. The maternity care records of 775 vegan mothers found no symptoms of preeclampsia, and only one case that met the clinical criteria. In 1987 a research article about the Farm experience proposed that preeclampsia is due to the unrestrained consumption of “fast foods” (foods having high levels of saturated fat) and rapid weight gain of the mothers-to-be. A vegan diet was proposed as the solution.
Morning Sickness Protects Babies from Meat
Approximately two-thirds of women experience nausea or vomiting during early pregnancy. This “morning sickness” actually serves an important function: to cause pregnant women to physically expel and subsequently avoid foods that cause harm to mother and infant. Women who develop morning sickness have less risk of miscarriages and a better chance for survival of their infants.
Research shows that aversions in pregnant women (and those that cause morning sickness) are greatest to meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. Not surprisingly, these same foods have the highest levels of chemical contamination. Why? Because an animal’s fatty tissues attract and concentrate chemicals—a process known as “bioaccumulation.”
This is why, in an analysis of 27 traditional societies, no morning sickness was observed in those societies that have plants (primarily corn), rather than meat, as the dietary staple. Consuming organic foods is another critical step to having a cleaner body.
Plant Foods Repair Genetic Damage
The human body has detoxification systems that have evolved over 300 million years to protect animals from natural toxins. These same systems will also rid the body of synthetic pollutants. Much attention has been given to the ability of plant-derived folate (a water-soluble B vitamin) to synthesize and repair our genetic materials (DNA), especially during times of rapid cell division and growth, such as occurs during pregnancy.
Accordingly, in the 1960s, research linked folate deficiency in a woman’s diet to severe birth defects, especially those of the nervous system (for example, spina bifida). Decreased folate metabolism in mothers has also been associated with increased risk of having an infant with Down syndrome. It is now well-known that a diet high in plant-based folate will significantly lower the risk of these and other birth defects.
Eating a diet high in plant foods is also essential for making good male sperm. Men with high folate intake have been found to have lower overall frequencies of several types of “aneuploid sperm.” Aneuploidy is a condition where one or a few chromosomes are above or below the normal chromosome number, and is associated with birth defects, such as Down syndrome.
The bottom line is that a plateful of meat and dairy—devoid of starches, vegetables and fruits—is a set-up for genetic damage leading to a less than perfect baby.
Prenatal Vitamins Do Not Compensate for a Bad Diet
To compensate for the growing lack of folate and other key nutrients in the diets of mom’s-to-be, doctors commonly prescribe comprehensive prenatal multi-vitamins. Unfortunately, taking isolated concentrated nutrients in the form of vitamin pills or fortified foods creates nutritional imbalances that can place mother and baby at different, but just as serious, increased risks. Folic acid supplements may increase the risk of autism and asthma in the child. In adults, folic acid supplementation at levels recommended to reduce birth defects definitely increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and death.
The taking of other prenatal vitamins has been linked to illness in mothers and birth defects in babies as well. For example, among the babies born to women who took more than 10,000 IU of preformed vitamin A per day, estimates are that about 1 infant in 57 had a malformation attributable to the supplement. Prenatal vitamins have also been associated with low birth weights and congenital heart defects. (Vitamins as naturally found in plants are never toxic.)
Fixing the problem with recommendations for a healthy diet of plant foods for men and women throughout life is the right approach. The only supplement I recommend during pregnancy is vitamin B12 (at least 5 micrograms daily).
Fish and Omega-3 Fats Adversely Effect Pregnancy
Stories of brain damage from a lack of omega-3 fatty acids (like DHA and EPA from fish) easily stroke people’s emotions. There is no evidence, however, that increasing intakes of DHA in pregnant and lactating women have any physiologically significant benefit to the infant. In fact, there is substantial evidence that higher intakes of fish fat can have an adverse effect on pregnancy for both mother and child. Fish eating prolongs gestation and increases birth weight, which results in an increase in birth injuries and Cesarean section births. There is also an increase in infant mortality in fish-eating populations. Taking fish oils during pregnancy can cause hypertension in mothers. In one study, feeding fish oil supplements to lactating mothers resulted in offspring (seven-year-old boys) with higher blood pressure and body weight and lower physical activity.
On top of this, fish are the primary source of highly toxic methymercury found in pregnant women’s bodies. Mercury poisoning of the brain results in motor dysfunction, memory loss, and learning disabilities, as well as depression-like behaviour. Even very low doses may cause damage to the developing brain of the fetus. The January 28, 2008 issue of the New York Times reported that six pieces of sushi from most of the restaurants and stores would contain more than 49 micrograms of mercury. This level is of concern to the FDA and EPA.
Calcium and Protein Are Merchandizing Messages
Even after learning the hazards of eating meat and dairy products rather than starches, parents are perplexed because of the misinformation taught about the necessity of these food groups in order to get adequate protein and calcium, especially for the unborn. These are messages from industry solely designed to sell their products and are completely false. Plants supply sufficient amounts of protein and calcium to grow the muscles and skeletons of the largest animals that walk the earth, including the elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, horse, and cow. You can safely assume that there are sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients in vegetable foods to grow relatively small human beings, including their developing babies.
Fighting for a Successful Pregnancy
Having a normal baby and a healthy mother are not simply a matter of luck. Ideally, plans for a family should be started long before conception. When possible, lose excess body fat long before conception. In this way stored pollutants will be eliminated as body fat is dissolved. This is especially true when your diet is free of pollutants and full of detoxifying substances, such as a diet of starches, fruits, and vegetables. Even better, your diet should be focused on organic plant produce.
Tobacco, alcohol, coffee, medications, and illicit drugs are known to harm mother and baby, so these should be avoided. Sunshine (for vitamin D and more) and moderate exercise round out the McDougall Program for Pregnancy. With the foundation of an organic, starch-based diet, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, chances are excellent for every parent’s dream for the perfect baby to come true.
About the Author
John A. McDougall , MD, has authored many bestselling books and is featured in the documentary and book Fork over Knives. He serves as associate professor at Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Vallejo, CA, and teaches medical students at his clinic in Santa Rosa.
Find out more and subscribe to Dr. McDougall’s mailing list at www.drmcdougall.com