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Nutrition During the Lifecycle: Nature's Clock or Ticking Time Bomb?

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

“Everything that happens in our environment happens to us, even if we don’t know it yet.”

Celine Cousteau, American Public Health Association, Philadelphia, PA November, 2009

What if I told you that many of the diseases plaguing modern society today may have their roots in the womb? You might think I’ve been reading too much science-fiction. But in truth, mounting evidence shows a link between the quality of a mother’s diet during pregnancy and the long-term health of her children.

For example, if the food and water a pregnant woman consumes contain toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals, her fetus faces a higher risk for an assortment of illnesses, ranging from birth defects and autism to cancer, obesity, diabetes and even decreased fertility later in life. (1)

One recent study found that exposure to pesticides in the womb led to greater risk for developing metabolic syndrome—a condition characterized by obesity, high blood sugar and elevated blood pressure, plus a greater risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. (2) Another study linked a high beef intake (think steroid growth hormones routinely administered to conventional cattle) during pregnancy with lower sperm counts in male children. (3)

Pregnant and lactating women as well as children are also typically warned against eating certain species of fish because of their high levels of mercury, as well as other industrial and agricultural pollutants which can impact brain development lasting a lifetime. (4)

Lifecycle Nutrition: Key to Lifelong Health

“Lifecycle nutrition” refers to our unique nutrient needs during different ages or stages of development. The Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes spell out specific nutrient requirements according to age and sex. (5) For example, children and teens have high needs for dietary calcium in order to build strong bones; pregnant women need higher levels of the B vitamin, folate, to protect against birth defects.

However, it’s important to expand our thinking of nutrient “needs” to include an awareness of how our food is produced. That’s because exposure to, or protection from, contaminants in our food and water also sets the stage for present and future health. (1,4) Consider organic versus conventional milk. Both may provide equal amounts of calcium and protein to meet nutrient needs. But organic milk is the better choice because organic cows are raised on pasture and organic feed, free of toxic, synthetic pesticides. Plus, grazing on pasture results in higher levels of beneficial fats in organic milk. Organic cows aren’t injected with hormones either, nor are they given antibiotics, which contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans. (4,6)

Timing Counts

We used to think the dose of a toxic chemical "made the poison." In other words, the more toxin we were exposed to, the greater the negative effects. But today we understand that the timing of our exposure may be even more important than the quantity.(1,6)

Exposure to environmental toxins during critical periods of development when we are most vulnerable—such as pre-conception, conception, and through the first 10 weeks of gestation at least—can predict disease and disability in childhood and beyond.(1-3,7)

The term "epigenetics" describes "fetal programming" or the ability of the environment in the womb to "program" or turn genes on or off, with lifelong consequences, sometimes persisting through multiple generations.(1)

Periods of heightened vulnerability to environmental toxins may extend from birth through age seven, or until children can produce protective levels of detoxifying enzymes. Susceptibility to toxins increases again during puberty, when children experience rapid growth and development.(1,6,8)

Back in Time to Happy Ever After

I frequently tell young mothers that if I could live my life over, I would be much more careful to feed my children organic food. I know better today, thanks to a growing body of scientific evidence proving the dramatic difference organic diets can make for both personal health and our global environment.

One startling study in particular deserves our attention. Researchers showed that simply switching children from a conventional to an organic diet resulted in a dramatic drop in pesticide metabolites, or breakdown products in the children's urine -- to near non-detectable levels.(9) Multiple studies also show that organically produced food contains higher levels of assorted heart-protecting, cancer-fighting nutrients, such as minerals, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats —preventive medicine for all ages. In fact, organic food may prove to be the real "Fountain of Youth."(6,10)

For example, resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant found in highest concentrations in organically farmed red grapes and peanuts has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect; it also appears to slow and in some cases block tumor growth, and it may even improve memory.(6) Finally, organic farming methods promise a more safe, biodiverse, and food secure planet for future generations.(10)

Organic food is the modern, smart wave of the future. Hop on board for long-lasting health throughout the lifecycle.

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That First Step

Six ways that organic food and farming can contribute to reversing current trends in overweight, obesity, and diabetes. A Critical Issues Report from The Organic Center.
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Beyond the Plate Wins Award!

This column was awarded First Place for "Writing for the Web" in the National Federation of Press Women 2011 Communications Contest.

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