A healthy mother means a healthy baby

Professor Claire Roberts from the University of Adelaide presented this year’s Human Reproduction keynote lecture based on work from her group on maternal preconceptional diet.

Published 25 June 2019

Annual Meeting's opening Human Reproduction keynote lecture makes an unequivocal link between the good and bad of a preconceptional diet and measures of female fertility.

It was standing room only for the opening keynote lecture of this year's Annual Meeting with a crowd of around 4000 packing the auditorium in Vienna to hear Professor  Claire Roberts deliver the Human Reproduction lecture, this year on how diet affects female fertility.

The take-home message from her lecture was what a woman eats not only has a significant impact on the time she takes to conceive, but also on the health of future generations including grandchildren. Too much fast food, too little fruit and green vegetables, as well as low or high levels of trace elements such as zinc, selenium and copper may all have a significant effect.  

'Reproductive events shape life-time health, and that might be conferred by diet pre-conception,' said Professor Roberts, from the Robinson Research Institute, at the University of Adelaide, Australia. 'How well you grow in utero influences your risk of lifetime chronic disease. These effects on future health can be conferred to children and to grandchildren. A mother foreshadows their health.' From midwives to pharmacists to clinicians, all have a crucial role to play in providing women with evidence-based advice, said Roberts, with their advice being of the 'utmost importance'.

Published in Human Reproduction, her study was one of the first to evidence a link between diet and time-to-pregnancy in the general population. The report received the largest number of full-text downloads for any paper published between July 2017 and June 2018.

The research was based on the Screening for Pregnancy Endpoints (SCOPE) study which recruited 5598 women in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. All were interviewed between 2003 and 2011 by midwives during their first antenatal visit. None had given birth previously, the majority (94%) had received no fertility treatment before conception, and researchers excluded couples where male partner infertility was the reason for treatment.

The findings showed that 468 couples (8%) from the cohort were classified as infertile  - and more than one-third conceived within a month. The infertility risk increased (from 8% to 12%) in women with low fruit intake (just 1-3 servings a month), and this risk increased (to 16%) for those eating fast food four or more times a week. Time to pregnancy was also increased for women with high fast food/low fruit intake. It thus took nearly half a month longer for the latter to conceive than women who ate fruit three or more times daily, or who never/rarely ate fast food.

Roberts also outlined how eating green vegetables or taking folic acid supplements had a positive benefit. Separate SCOPE research data, for example, showed that just one or more pre-conceptional servings a day of green vegetables reduced the risk of a small-for-gestational-age baby by 27%, and by 23% at 15 weeks' gestation.

Other diet-related factors such as trace elements may also have an impact on conception and pregnancy. For example, one related study found that women in the highest tertile for copper were at increased risk for pregnancy complications; and low levels of zinc and selenium in the blood were shown to increase time to pregnancy.

But overall, said Roberts, a healthy mother 'equals a healthy baby' and they must not be seen as just human incubators by clinics in their pursuit of helping couples become parents.

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