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ROCKVILLE, Md. — Women who don’t watch what they eat during pregnancy can affect their child’s health well into their teenage years. Nutrition during pregnancy plays a pivotal role in determining the child’s body mass index (BMI) even during adolescence, according to a new study.

Children who are overweight, meaning their BMI is above 24.9, have an increased risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes, and orthopedic disorders. In the U.S., almost 15 million children and adolescents are obese. Following a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and oils, as well as in sources of vitamin D and omega-3 could help remedy this, the study’s authors said.

“To date, studies linking maternal nutrition during pregnancy to offspring growth have focused on the newborn- and early-childhood period, with limited data extending later into childhood,” says study lead author Dr. Carmen Monthé-Drèze, of Harvard University, in a media release. “We wanted to better understand dynamic growth changes that occur from childhood through adolescence as a result of maternal nutrition in pregnancy. We specifically wanted to assess whether there are distinct periods between birth and adolescence when rates of weight gain are more susceptible to the programming effects of nutrition in pregnancy.”

The researchers analyzed data from 1,459 mothers and children, collected by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. Mothers were asked to complete food questionnaires during their pregnancies so the researchers could evaluate their diets using the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII), the Mediterranean diet score, and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index for Pregnancy.

These three “dietary indices” are used to determine whether a person is getting the right amount of nutrients from their diet, including those known to reduce the risk of disease. The child’s weight and height were then measured several times between birth and adolescence to calculate their BMI score.

“The results suggest maternal nutrition during pregnancy may have a long-term impact on children’s weight trajectories, and that there are specific developmental periods when nutrition during pregnancy may influence offspring growth,” says Dr. Monthé-Drèze. “For example, we found that a pregnancy diet with higher inflammatory potential was associated with faster BMI growth rates in children between three and ten years of age. We also found that lower adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet during pregnancy was associated with higher BMI trajectories through adolescence.”

Women should be made aware of how important a healthy diet is during pregnancy, the researchers said. “It is important to counsel women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant on the importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy,” adds Dr. Monthé-Drèze. “In particular, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should consider a Mediterranean diet, which may not only benefit their own health, but may also help their child maintain a healthy weight.”

A Mediterranean-style diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, low-mercury fish, and good quality oils such as extra virgin olive oil. These foods provide important sources of vitamin D, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and other nutrients, which have been shown to benefit the baby’s health.

“Research has shown that the foods that we eat during pregnancy may influence the metabolism of the growing child as well as their eating behaviors and food preferences. Additionally, the food choices women make during pregnancy are likely to be similar to food choices they offer their children,” says Dr. Monthé-Drèze. “Therefore, it is conceivable that maternal nutrition during pregnancy may be related to long-term weight issues in the offspring. Additional research is therefore needed to better understand the relationship between maternal diet in pregnancy and child BMI and weight gain patterns.”

Healthcare providers need to be particularly alert to children whose mothers did not follow a healthy diet during pregnancy. A woman’s nutritional needs during pregnancy vary widely, so soon-to-be mothers should consult their doctor to see what diet is best for them.

The findings are published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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