How to Grow a Healthy Baby with a Healthy Brain

For mothers-to-be and new mothers

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Mother and chld

Photo by melbia, Copyright 2009 / freeimages.com

By choosing a healthy well-balanced diet before you become pregnant, while you are pregnant, and while breastfeeding, you will greatly improve the chances of growing a healthy baby with a healthy brain.

The Fats (Lipids) in Your Diet

Every cell in the human body is surrounded by a membrane made of lipids. More than half of the brain is made up of lipids and cholesterol, which are needed to support and protect the delicate brain cells throughout life. Certain hormones and other important substances in the body cannot be made without lipids and cholesterol. Therefore it is important to include enough quality fats in your diet for your own health, and especially while trying to become pregnant, while pregnant, and while breastfeeding.

Look closely at labels of the foods you purchase in boxes, cans and jars. Avoid foods that include any type of hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated oils, or "transfats," such as "shortening," 100% vegetable oil, soybean oil, canola oil, margarine, certain brands of crackers, cookies, donuts, boxed pastries, peanut butter, salad dressings, mayonnaise, frozen entrees, frozen pizzas, and many "fast" foods.

Natural fats that have not been hydrogenated will allow you to build healthy cells for your baby and your own body. These include most olive, coconut, peanut, sesame, fish, flax, walnut and other nut oils, as well as soybean oil and canola oil, if they are non-hydrogenated. Eggs, whole milk and whole milk products, such as butter, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and kefir are great sources of the types of fats that will grow a healthy baby. If you are lactose intolerant, try Lactaid brand milk and cottage cheese, or take Lactaid pills to help digestion. Milk products will also supply most of the calcium you and your baby need for healthy bones. It is worth the extra cost to buy organic milk and milk products to avoid the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and preservatives that are present in many non-organic milks. Try to eat at least 3 to 4 servings of whole milk or milk products each day.

Some fats are "essential," which means that your body must have them, but cannot make them from other fats and, therefore, must be eaten. These fats are especially important to grow and maintain a healthy brain and eyes. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are more difficult to come by than omega-6, and can be obtained by eating two servings per week of salmon, or at least one daily serving of fish oil (liquid or capsules,) cod liver oil (flavored these days!), flax oil, flax meal, chia grain, walnuts, and walnut oil. There is a small amount of omega-3 in olive, soybean and canola oils (look for non-hydrogenated.) If you decide to use fish or cod liver oil supplements, look on the label to make sure they have been tested and found free of mercury and other heavy metals. If you include omega-3 fats in your diet your baby will receive them in your breast milk. Coconut oil is 50% lauric acid, a fatty acid that helps fight many types of infection. Breast milk also contains lauric acid which will help your baby fight infections. By including enough healthy fats in your diet, you will improve the overall composition of your breast milk. In addition, lauric acid and other fatty acids found primarily in coconut oil and in human breast milk are converted to ketones, an important source of fuel for your baby's brain cells during the early weeks of life.

Avoid:

  • Hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated oils and transfats
  • Fast foods, unless you can learn the ingredients and they do not contain these fats

Include:

  • Omega 3 Fatty acids: Salmon (wild is best) twice a week, or 3-4 grams a day from other sources such as fish oil or cod liver oil (tested and free of mercury and heavy metals,) flax oil, flax meal, chia grain, walnuts, and walnut oil
  • 3-4 servings of whole milk or milk products per day
  • Eggs (discussed more under protein,) nuts, olives, avocados
  • Use butter and other non-hydrogenated natural oils, such as coconut oil and olive oil
  • Non-hydrogenated peanut butter, almond & other nut butters

The Proteins in Your Diet

Proteins are made up of amino acids and are an important and necessary component of heart, muscle and the many other organs and tissues in the body. There are nine amino acids that are considered to be "essential" because they cannot be made in the body and must be eaten. Some foods have a better proportion of amino acids than others for human beings, which will build healthier tissues. Eggs are the highest quality protein available for people, since they have the perfect proportion of amino acids. Some other quality proteins include milk and milk products, fish, poultry, beef, and pork. Some whole grain cold and hot cereals, breads, rice and pastas contain a small amount of protein. It is very difficult to build a healthy brain and other tissues for yourself and your baby if you do not include enough animal proteins (eggs, milk, fish, poultry, meats) in your diet. Soybean protein contains the essential amino acids, but the proportion of the amino acids is not of the same quality as animal proteins. If protein is limited to soy, it is very difficult to build quality organs and tissues. Also, excessive amounts of soy protein may suppress the function of the thyroid gland, and there are estrogen-like substances in soy that may not be especially beneficial for a male fetus or newborn. Soy protein should be eaten in moderation and is not needed at all, if eating animal proteins. Care should be taken to read ingredients labels, since a surprising number of pre-packaged foods contain soy protein, even items like peanut butter, and many "reduced fat" and "low-carb" products, apparently as an inexpensive way to increase the total amount of protein in the food.

The average non-pregnant woman needs about 55-60 grams of quality protein per day, and if pregnant, this increases to about 70-80 grams. A larger woman would need a little more and a small woman a little less. A woman trying to lose weight, may also need as much as 80-90 grams of protein a day, or more, as well as engaging in strength exercises, to avoid losing important muscle. Since men have considerably more muscle than women, men also need more protein, on the order of 90-120 grams or more per day. You can work out a diet plan for yourself incorporating enough protein from the following list of average grams of protein per serving:

  • Eggs – 6 grams each
  • Milk – 8 grams per cup (read labels for other milk products)
  • Yogurts – 6 to 16 grams per serving depending on the brand (Greek yogurts usually have more protein)
  • Fish, poultry, meats – 7-8 grams per ounce
  • Whole grain breads, rice, pastas, cereals – 2-4 grams per serving (check nutrient label)

The Carbohydrates (Carbs) in Your Diet

Carbohydrates (sugars) are an important source of energy that can be used by all of the cells in the body. When carbohydrates are eaten, insulin is produced, which allows glucose to be carried into cells. If too much carbohydrate is eaten on a daily basis, as is very common today, cells may become resistant to insulin, and this may eventually lead to type II diabetes. The spikes in blood sugar, followed by spikes in insulin levels can result in a cycle of craving more carbohydrate and feelings of hunger. Foods containing "high-fructose corn syrup" or "HFCS" are notorious for creating spikes in blood sugar and insulin. Diabetes is also common in pregnancy and can result in complications for the mother and the baby.

Vegetables and fruits of different colors contain different types of vitamins and other important nutrients. A variety of "phytonutrients" have been discovered in recent years, and many more are yet to be discovered. Phytonutrients are substances that help build healthy cells and optimize cell functions. They are present in plant foods, but not normally found in "multi-vitamins," and other individual vitamin supplements, therefore it is important to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits to receive the vitamins and minerals we need, as well as the fats and other nutrients that allow us absorb and make optimal use of these substances. A serving of vegetables usually contains up to 5 grams of carbohydrate, and fruits may contain up to 25 grams of carbohydrate per serving. In order to avoid excessive carbohydrate in the diet, consider eating more vegetables and less fruits overall in your diet. By adding an extra serving or two of vegetables to a meal, there will be a greater feeling of fullness with a smaller number of calories compared to other types of foods. As an added bonus, vegetables, fruits and whole grain foods contain part of the carbohydrate as fiber, which helps maintaining normal bowel function.

Avoid:

  • Highly sweetened drinks, such as soda
  • "Enriched" white flour, white bread, white rice
  • Packaged or canned foods, "fruit" juices, or drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

Include:

  • Plenty of vegetables and fruits of a variety of colors, including citrus, preferably fresh or frozen, which retain more nutrients than canned products
  • Whole grain breads, cereals, rice, and pastas, 1-2 servings per meal
  • Grains, such as flax meal, wheat germ, chia and grated coconut can naturally add fiber to the diet

Vitamins and Minerals

The very best way to ensure that you received adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and the many phytonutrients that support the growth of healthy cells, is to eat a well-balanced diet, one that includes healthy, natural fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, eggs, milk and other animal proteins, vegetables and fruits of a variety of colors, and whole grain foods. For additional insurance, begin to take prenatal vitamins before you try to become pregnant. It is especially important to include enough folic acid before the pregnancy – at least 600 - 800 mcg per day, to avoid certain nervous system defects in the growing fetus. In addition, the pregnant and breastfeeding woman requires more calcium than usual to allow her baby to grow a strong skeleton and to maintain healthy bones herself. Recently, the U.S.D.A. recommendations for vitamin D have doubled. Vitamins A, D, and E and calcium (and many other nutrients) are not absorbed well into the body unless there is fat in the same meal, another good reason to eat enough healthy fat. A significant amount of vitamin D is made in the skin by exposing your skin to natural sunlight without sun block for 10-15 minutes several times per week, or longer if you live in a northern climate. This amount of exposure would not normally result in sunburn, even for children, and has not been reported to increase the risk of skin cancers. Cod liver oil, a favorite of past generations, provides significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acid, vitamins A and D – if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your physician if this an acceptable option for you. Also, beware of taking too many vitamins and other supplements. As with any medication or food, an excess may be harmful.

Treats

Do a little research on your favorite desserts and treats and allow some room in your diet (100-200 calories a day) for something special to avoid feeling "deprived." Find treats that have no hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats or transfats. Make it something you love and worth the calories.

Medications and Drugs

If you are trying to get pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding, it is very important to review any medications with your doctor that are prescribed for you, or bought over-the-counter, and determine if they are absolutely necessary for your mental or physical health. If not they are not absolutely necessary, they should be discontinued. You cannot assume because a medication is a prescription drug that it will be safe for your baby. Medications for pain, sleep, depression and anxiety have effects on brain chemicals, and could affect your baby's developing brain as well. Pain medications, whether obtained illegally or by prescription, such as methadone, Oxycontin, Percocet, morphine, fentanyl, Demerol, Tylenol #2 and #3, codeine, are addictive to the fetus and usually produce symptoms of withdrawal, sometimes severe, in the baby, and may have other long-term effects on the nervous system. Of course, alcohol, cigarette smoke, and illicit drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines are passed to the developing fetus and can have serious effects on the fetus' growth and development. Many of these substances are also passed in breast milk to the baby. If you choose to use these substances while pregnant and breastfeeding, you put your baby's brain and general health at great risk.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Newport

Dr. Mary Newport has served as founding medical director for two newborn intensive care units and is currently in full-time practice as a neonatologist in the Tampa Bay, Florida area.

She is the author of Alzheimer's Disease: What If There Was a Cure? The Story of Ketones, now in itsRead more