Chronic inflammatory conditions and neurodevelopmental disorders are on the rise – but with a few simple dietary changes, you can help your baby avoid them
12 months ago, I became a mother: Our daughter Cara was born here in Amsterdam, in our home. Like all mothers, I obsessed about doing everything in my power to ensure I would have a healthy, happy baby. Fortunately, that is what Cara has turned out to be!
In the Western world, the incidence of chronic inflammatory diseases like allergies, asthma, and eczema is skyrocketing. Whereas only a fraction of the population was afflicted a few decades ago, now between 10-20% of all children in developed nations become lifelong sufferers. But I had more reason to worry: Because my husband had had eczema, allergies, and asthma since birth, Cara’s chances of developing a chronic condition were increased to at least 60% 1 . In addition, autism - many parents’ biggest fear - now affects 1 out of 110 boys and 1 out of 330 girls in the Netherlands. Increasingly, the latest research points to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders being inflammatory conditions as well 2–4 .
The causes for this rise in inflammation in our bodies are emerging, too. We have trillions of beneficial bacteria, the so-called microbiome, living in our guts which fulfill a crucial role in regulating our immune systems. When their balance gets upset and allows pathogenic microbes to take over, the result is inflammation, chronic auto-immune conditions, obesity, even cancer 5–8 . There are many ways in which we are killing the good bacteria in our guts: Overuse of antibiotics 9 , antibacterial household products 10 , pesticides like glyphosate 11 whose use is increasing due to GMOs 12 , and antibiotics in farmed animals which remains in the fish, meat, and milk in our diet 13–15 . Birth and baby feeding choices matter, too: Babies born by C-section and fed with formula lack certain types of good bacteria and are at higher risk of asthma, obesity, and diabetes 16–18 .
In addition to the microbiome, the balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats in our diet has shifted dramatically. Humans evolved on a ratio of 1:1 of these fats, whereas Western diets now have a ratio of 1:16 – that is, 16 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 19,20 . The problem with this imbalance is that Omega-6 promotes inflammation, whereas Omega-3 inhibits inflammation. Too much Omega-6 in our bodies has been linked to allergies, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and depression 21–23 .
Now for the good news: You have the power to address these problems and give your baby a better chance at a healthy life through simple diet and lifestyle changes!
Avoid antibiotics, antibacterials, and pesticides: First, don’t use antibiotics and harsh antibacterial household products unless absolutely necessary. Also, try to avoid pesticides as much as possible: In a recent study by the University of California, babies of mothers who lived within a mile of pesticide-treated fields had a 66% higher risk of autism 24,25 !
Buy organic: Buy certified organic (“bio”) meats, fish, dairy, fruit, and veggies whenever you can – it contains no antibiotics and pesticides harmful to your and your baby’s gut bacteria. If you are unable to buy organic food, you can try to avoid the “dirty dozen”, the fruits and veggies grown with the highest number of pesticides.
According to the Environmental Working Group, just switching these twelve to organic can reduce pesticide exposure by 80% 26 : Apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and potatoes 27 .
Help your gut bacteria: Eat prebiotic foods that have lots of soluble fibre, which helps the good bacteria grow. Good sources of prebiotics are almonds, apples, blueberries, dates, and veggies like Jerusalem artichokes, wild yams, leeks, asparagus, chicory, garlic, and onion28. Breast milk is also high in prebiotics called galacto-oligosaccharides, supporting your baby’s gut bacteria29.
You can also eat probiotic, fermented foods with lots of live beneficial bacteria – pickled veg, unpasteurized sauerkraut, spicy Korean kimchi (best homemade), or miso soup (don’t boil the soup, just add the miso paste to hot water).
Lastly, I recommend taking a high-quality probiotic supplement (I take Udo’s Probiotics, which are guaranteed to be transported and stored cooled). New research shows that probiotics taken during pregnancy and early childhood reduce your baby’s risk of eczema and allergies30–32, autism and neurodevelopmental disorders33–36, obesity and diabetes37–39, as well as the risk of pre-term delivery and preeclampsia40,41.
Eat healthy fats: Eat foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids to reduce the inflammation in your body. Flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, grass-fed organic beef, and wild fish (not more than once a week) are good options42. At the same time, reduce Omega-6 fatty acids by avoiding processed vegetable oils like safflower, grapeseed, sunflower, and corn oil43 (use olive oil and coconut oil instead).
Also, I recommend taking a high-quality fish oil that has been independently tested for purity from toxins and heavy metals (I take Minami MorDHA). DHA is the Omega-3 fatty acid you want; it is the most abundant polyunsaturated fat in the brain. Studies show that DHA supplementation during pregnancy improves your baby’s brain development and intelligence44,45, significantly reduces the risk of eczema, asthma, and other inflammatory diseases46–48, and may help prevent autism, ADHD, and cerebral palsy49–51.
Breastfeed and delay solids & common allergens: Besides prebiotics, breast milk also contains over 700 strains of different bacteria, the composition of which changes over time as your baby grows52,53 – these help your baby’s gut flora get off to a good start. Babies exclusively breastfed for 4 months or more have a lower risk of asthma, eczema, hay fever, dust allergy, and food allergies54.
Solids should be delayed until your baby is 6 months old – by then, your baby’s gut is more fully formed and less permeable for food particles that could cause allergies when entering the blood stream. When it comes to avoiding common allergens like dairy, eggs, gluten, shellfish, and peanuts, the science is less clear: If your baby is at high risk for allergies, many researchers advocate delaying these foods for at least six months, possibly up to two years. Some researchers, however, argue that delaying could increase the risk of allergies 55,56 . Personally, I have been avoiding eggs until Cara was 6 months old, and I am still avoiding dairy.
It’s never too late to make these changes and improve your and your baby’s health. If you need support, help with meal planning, or other practical nutrition advice, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
A big thank you to Aafke Mertens at www.curlysketches.nl for the lovely illustrations!
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