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How lifestyle and diet is important pre-conception

Tuesday April 17th, 2018

The diet and lifestyle of parents plays a major role in the growth, development and health of a child before conception, experts say today.

The findings, published as a series of three papers in The Lancet, could have significant societal and public health implications, and suggest that there could be a new emphasis when preparing to conceive.

The series draws on existing global evidence to redefine the preconception period and outlines how preconception risk factors affect the unborn baby and lifelong health risks.

Series lead author, Professor Judith Stephenson, of University College London, UK, says: “The preconception period is a critical time when parental health – including weight, metabolism, and diet – can influence the risk of future chronic disease in children, and we must now re-examine public health policy to help reduce this risk.

“While the current focus on risk factors, such as smoking and excess alcohol intake, is important, we also need new drives to prepare nutritionally for pregnancy for both parents. Raising awareness of preconception health, and increasing availability of support to improve health before conception will be crucial.”

Although previous research has defined the preconception period as the three months before conception, this time frame does not take into account the time taken to achieve preconception health improvements, the experts say.

Achieving a healthy weight can take months or years, while having sufficient folate concentrations can take less than a month when supplements are taken.

For this series, the authors have redefined preconception into three periods: biological – as the days to weeks before and after fertilisation; individual – as the weeks or months when a woman or couple decides to have a child; and public health level – as the months or years needed to address preconception risk factors, such as diet and obesity, before pregnancy.

Professor Keith Godfrey, NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and University of Southampton, said: “Better understanding of the underlying mechanisms – including epigenetic, cellular, metabolic, or physiological effects – and the exposures that drive them, will be important and help define preconception health recommendations in the future.”

Using data from 509 women of reproductive age in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the researchers calculated that 96% of women of reproductive age have iron and folate dietary intakes below the recommendation for pregnancy.

They have called for interventions that start years before pregnancy to improve the health of future generations.

Dr Mary Baker, of Southampton University, said: “Current preconception health interventions may be limited by their focus on individual responsibility, and not directly addressing social influences or the obesogenic environment.

“Improving the overall health of the population, as well as raising awareness of the importance of the preconception period could help improve the health of future generations.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to support our young adults become successful parents of healthy, long-lived children. We have the infrastructure to do this in our existing health and education platforms and a global food system, but must now prioritise improving preconception health.”

The studies were welcomed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK.

Vice-president Professor Janice Rymer said: “This highly significant research presents stark evidence of the importance of nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period. We are extremely concerned by the findings that 96% of women of reproductive age have iron and folate dietary intakes below the recommendation for pregnancy.”

She added: “We support the call for public health measures to ensure individuals are nutritionally prepared for conception and pregnancy and for these interventions to start years before pregnancy. Education from an early age – ideally from adolescence – about the need to maintain a healthy diet and weight will not only improve the health of individuals, but also the health and quality of life of future generations.”

Lancet 17 April 2018


Tags: Childbirth and Pregnancy | Diet & Food | Fitness | UK News | Women's Health & Gynaecology | World Health

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