x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Parents are key to good habits, even before children are born

The future of a country always rests on the shoulders of its young people and in the rapidly developing UAE this an especially important consideration.

Whitney Houston had a point when she sang "Children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."

The future of a country always rests on the shoulders of its young people and in the rapidly developing UAE this an especially important consideration: the population growth rate here is the sixth-highest in the world, at just over 3 per cent per year.

But while the population grows, we are also growing as individuals. We now have the world's seventh-highest prevalence of adult obesity, at 33.7 per cent.

Obesity is, in part, a consequence of rapid development and urbanisation. But the effect of this trend on children could even slow down the continued development of the country.

Everyone knows the dangers of obesity and the cardiovascular risk it entails. Medically speaking, obesity is mainly a consequence of unhealthy lifestyle choices: poor eating habits and a lack of exercise.

However, studies have shown that for some children, their mothers' lifestyle choices also play a part in their eventual obesity even before they are born.

High maternal pre-pregnancy weight, and too much weight gain during pregnancy, increase the risk that the foetus will be large for its gestational age, which in turn increases the risk of childhood obesity. Harming ourselves with lifestyle choices is one thing; harming children before they have a chance at life is another altogether.

It is no exaggeration, then, to say that lifestyle choices can have an effect on the entire country's future.

Pregnancy is a perfect time for a woman to start improving her diet, motivated by knowing that this will give her unborn child a better start.

Contrary to popular belief, pregnancy does not mean that a woman should "eat for two". The ideal weight gain during pregnancy varies, depending on the woman's initial weight. Usually she shouldn't gain too much.

A US non-profit organisation, the Institute of Medicine, offers guidelines on pregnancy weight gain. The calculations depend on body mass index. To find yours, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared.

A normal BMI for a woman who is not pregnant is between 18.5 and 24.9. At this weight, a weight gain of 11.5 to 16 kilograms during pregnancy is recommended.

Those additional calories should be obtained not by skipping meals and replacing them with junk food, but through a balanced and regular diet of three meals a day consisting of several servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and a few sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs, dried peas or beans).

A woman should start thinking about her weight before she gets pregnant, to optimise her health and that of her unborn child. She should aim for a BMI in the normal range.

Also, she should start taking prenatal vitamins as soon as she begins thinking about getting pregnant. The daily dose should include at least 400 micrograms of folic acid.

Once she is pregnant, she should weigh herself to calculate her baseline BMI again.

These figures will help her estimate how much weight she should expect to gain over the pregnancy.

While pregnant, she should make sure she continues to take prenatal vitamins, and monitors her weight to stay near the recommended gain.

Pregnant women should also stick to a healthy diet, avoiding fish with high levels of mercury. Remember that large amounts of caffeine may increase the risk of miscarriage.

Pregnant women should also stay away from unwashed fruit and vegetables, unpasteurised dairy products and undercooked meat.

By adhering to these guidelines, and breastfeeding, mothers give their children the best possible chance of a healthy future.

Thereafter, continuous education about healthy lifestyle behaviours, such as eating small quantities of healthy food and exercising, will be required to prevent bad habits being passed on to the next generation.

With any luck, all this effort will ensure that your children and others their age will end up fit, and not carrying the extra weight of your bad habits for the rest of their lives.


Cother Hajat and Jomana Fikree are physicians and academics based in Abu Dhabi


Editor's note: This article was amended to correct the BMI calculation