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PLAYING: How to program your child’s future health

How to program your child’s future health

What to eat during pregnancy to give your baby the best start in life.

4 mins to read Dec 31, 2021

Food takes on a whole new meaning when you’re a mom-to-be. Not only can it boost your energy levels and sense of well-being during the often exhausting nine months of pregnancy, but it also directly influences the health of the baby growing and developing inside you. In fact, the nutrition your child receives starting from conception through to when their two years of age, can affect the extent to which your child may develop chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in the future. This is the concept of “early nutrition and metabolic programming”.

Eat today for their tomorrow

“This idea of early nutrition programming is all about giving your unborn baby the best start in life,” says Dr. Marco Turini, PhD, former Head of Global Scientific Affairs at Nestlé Nutrition, Switzerland. “During these nine months, the nutrition, and environment your baby experiences influences how your baby grows and develops before birth, and can program his growth and health for years to come. This requires special attention to provide adequate nutritional care. That’s why gaining the appropriate amount of weight and choosing foods rich in nutrients are so important for your baby’s health.”

Why your weight matters

The problem of childhood obesity is one of best reasons for maintaining your own healthy weight gain and eating a balanced diet while you’re pregnant. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy can lead to an approximate 40% increased risk of childhood obesity.

Gaining too much weight during pregnancy can also lead to a baby that is too large at birth. Contrary to some beliefs, an extra-large baby at birth is not healthier than a baby born at a normal and healthy weight. In addition, a high birth weight can indicate a baby will have a greater chance of becoming too heavy during his toddler and childhood years. As well as leading to other problems such as diabetes, childhood obesity often leads to adult obesity. A second theory for why some children become obese relates to the weight gain of your baby after birth. Babies who gain weight rapidly are at increased risk of later obesity.

Here are some simple ideas for super-charging your nutrient intake:

EAT… pulses

Pulses are the affordable, delicious, and protein-packed foods you may know better as beans. Eating more pulses, making a lentil salad or adding some chickpeas to your stew at home, for example, will add to your nutrient intake. Pulses include dried beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. Along with fish, chicken, red meat, spinach, and dried fruit, pulses also contain iron—a mineral vital for your baby’s neural and red blood cell development. They’re also good sources of protein, your baby’s building blocks for so many things from enzymes to antibodies.

COOK… vegetables

Eating your vegetables has never been so important. The dark, green leafy types such as kale and spinach are especially rich in folate. Vital in the very early weeks, folate aids your baby’s neural tube develop into their spine and brain. Think about dishing up some carrots, squash, or sweet potatoes with your Sunday lunch too as they all contain vitamin A, which is important for vision and immune health.

DRINK… milk

Milk contains calcium, which helps build strong bones and teeth. During pregnancy, you need up to 1200 mg calcium a day, and a glass of milk (240 ml) delivers about 300 mg. Low fat milks (skim, 1%, and 2%) contain the same amount of calcium as whole (homogenized) milk with fewer calories.

ENJOY… oily fish

Fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, provides DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that helps support your baby’s brain and eye development. Getting enough DHA can be tricky, so if you’re unsure—or you’re not a fish fan—speak to your healthcare provider about a supplement containing DHA.

BOIL… eggs

Whether you like them boiled, scrambled, or poached, eggs are a great source of protein. A building block of your baby’s body, protein helps to develop almost everything from muscles to collagen. During pregnancy, your protein needs increase from about 50 to 71 g per day. To put that in context of what’s on your plate, a boiled egg has about 7 g of protein; a 30 g portion of cheese and a 240 ml cup of milk each has 7-8 g of protein; and a 85 g filet of salmon contains 23 g of protein. So, one egg can give you about the same amount of protein as 30g of meat, fish, or cheese, or a glass of milk.

STAY… active

Keeping active by doing some gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, or yoga may help to keep your weight gain under control. Current Canadian guidelines for healthy pregnant women recommend at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical exercise per week, spread over at least 3 days. Always check with your healthcare provider about exercise during pregnancy.


  • Black RE, Victora CG, Walker SP et al. Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries. Lancet 2013; 382:427-51.

  • De Kroon ML. The Terneuzen birth cohort: BMI changes between 2 and 6 years correlate strongest with adult overweight. PLoS One 2010; 5:e9155.

  • Dodd JM. Dietary and lifestyle advice for pregnant women who are overweight or obese: the LIMIT randomized trial. Ann Nutr Metab 2014; 64:197-202.


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