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Author and food activist Nina Planck was raised on a family farm in Virginia, where she learned to appreciate "real," traditional foods. She worked as a reporter for TIME Magazine[…]

An omnivore’s diet is best for fertility, pregnancy, and nursing—and will help make sure your offspring are healthy.

Question: Why are real foods better for fertility, pregnancy and nursing? 

Nina Planck: Well, when I got pregnant I knew I would be eating real and traditional foods, and I wanted also to look at the conventional thinking on pre-natal diets. And I found it to be riddled with myths and misunderstandings, so I went back to my books and traditional cultures and started to look at what they fed young men and women who were newly married and were expected to reproduce forthwith, and we find a couple of things in traditional cultures and these were backed up by research I found that are at odds with our attitudes toward feeding expectant parents and pregnant women. And one is that without question every traditional culture recognized that this was a period, the period from zero – I call that conception – to age two of heightened nutritional needs and they took great care about feeding young women, young men, pregnant women, nursing women and children very well, much more care than we take. And they took care with what I call the fertility diet, so the period before conception. And what principles do we find there? One is that these were not vegan diets – even in largely vegetarian tribes who did consume some dairy and/or eggs or bugs or something, but not meat – you find a lot of attention paid to getting men and women who would be mothers and fathers foods of animal origin. So it’s very much an omnivore’s diet if you want to get pregnant and have healthy children. 

The second is that all of these fertility diets and pregnancy diets included foods of the sea, even for landlocked tribes, which I found quite interesting, so tribes who were say up in the mountains or who were largely farming tribes would trade with other peoples who had access to foods of the sea and it turns there are just some vital nutrients in the sea. Iodine is one. The long chain omega-3 fats are another that you just must have for conception and for a healthy pregnancy. 

And, finally, I found that there were a few misconceptions about feeding baby’s first foods. And this dates back to some industrial food marketing in our country, so the baby food niche has been largely filled by cereals. But it turns out that cereals are not the ideal first food for babies. They lack amylase, which is a big starch-digesting enzyme until about age one. A baby’s diet is somewhat iron-poor because breast milk is by design iron-poor and grains interfere with iron absorption. Cereals basically don’t provide a lot of high quality fat and protein. So even though we’ve been feeding babies cereal out of jars for a long time the better foods are high quality fats, proteins and of course any digestible fruits and vegetables. Avocados and bananas are time-honored. 

Question: Why do women in our culture breastfeed for less time than elsewhere in the world? 

Nina Planck: The good news is that breastfeeding has made a big comeback since rates were really low in the ‘50s and ‘60s. La Leche League and other groups have brought breastfeeding back. So it’s now well understood by even the women on the street that breast milk is better than any kind of formula no matter good the formulas are getting – and they are getting better. So that is the good news. Women could breastfeed longer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of six months exclusive breast milk. That is no water or any other food for a full six months – and ideally for a full year. There are a number of advantages to extended breastfeeding. Your definition of "extended" varies widely. There are very… There are women very committed to nursing their toddlers. I nursed our boy until he was two and he has had some since and he is now three, so some of the benefits are that if you continue to breastfeed while you introduce complimentary real foods you provide a kind of nutritional baseline. The period when your baby is beginning to experiment with foods – and at the moment I have twins who are eight months old, so I know just what this is like – is characterized by highly erratic consumption patterns and highly uneven nutrition, so breast milk provides a foundation during that period. 

Breast milk is also very important to the growing child because it not only provides complete nutrition and provides a number of antibodies and really enhances immunity in multiple ways, but it develops and matures the digestive tract and the immune system. So it has effects... it affects the whole developing child. Two of the three systems, which are immature at birth, immunity and digestion, are greatly enhanced by breast milk and the third organ that is immature at birth is the brain. There is a huge growth in the brain in what is called the fourth trimester of the first three months of the baby’s life and in fact, in the first year and it’s the DHA that is derived from fish oil in a mother’s breast milk that really enhances brain and eye health in your growing child. 

Question: What types of "real foods" are best for women who are nursing? 

Nina Planck: I also looked into the nursing diet and I found that it is not very different in principle or practice than the fertility diet or the prenatal diet, so foods should be traditional and nutrient dense and it should be an omnivore’s diet with high quality fats including fish oil. That much is pretty simple. Across traditional cultures I looked for nursing foods and then looked for the science to justify their inclusion in the nursing diet and what you find without fail are diets high in fluids because the nursing woman is easily dehydrated and chicken soup and fish soup are highly popular. Those would be very high quality calcium and mineral sources. You find beer on the nursing diet, which I expect is for its traces of vitamin B12, which is important and you do find fish on the nursing diet. The good news about breast milk is that it’s quite a stable recipe, so whatever the mother eats breast milk will be quite steady. The mammary glands are very effective at producing what the baby needs, even if they have to ransack the mother’s own stores to get it. However, we find a direct correlation between the fats in breast milk and the fatty tissue in the mother, that is her fat stores in her own body and in her diet. So if you look at a mother’s breast milk and her consumption of trans-fats, for example – those are from artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils and they cause heart disease and a number or bad things – you will see trans fats in her breast milk and her diet. You will see trans fat consumption across the whole population corresponding with trans fat quantities in the diet and the same is true of all the fats including the good fats, so we find that women who don’t eat enough fish or seafood don’t have enough DHA in the breast milk. The breast milk in particular of vegan mothers is very low in DHA, so it’s quite important to have a good supply of high-quality clean fish oil in your diet when you’re breastfeeding.
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