Preconception diet and lifestyle is key for health of offspring

By Julie Griffiths on 17 April 2018 The Lancet Good Health

The Lancet has published a new series calling for greater awareness of preconception health and improved guidance, with more focus on diet and nutrition.

It says that parents’ diets and health can have profound implications for the growth, development, and long-term health of their children before their conception.

The authors of the series of three papers call for a joint focus, including better guidance and support for individuals planning pregnancy, and increased public health measures to reduce obesity and improve nutrition.

They suggest that behaviour change interventions, supplementation and fortification could lead to preconception health improvements.

The series draws on existing evidence from around the world to redefine the preconception period, outlines how preconception risk factors affect the unborn baby and lifelong health risks, and proposes interventions to help improve preconception health. The authors present two new analyses of the diets and health of women of reproductive age (18 to 42 years) in the UK and Australia.

Lead author professor Judith Stephenson of University College London said: ‘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.’

The authors propose that schools need to help young adults prepare for parenthood in the future by engaging adolescents in thinking about their diets and health, and the implications of this in later life, in pregnancy, and for future generations.

Building on this, in adults with no immediate plans to become pregnant, they call for social change that supports improved public awareness of preconception health.

Lastly, in adults planning to become pregnant, they call for improved support and practical tools for preconception health.

The authors also suggest that the food industry and food retailers should be part of the solution, working alongside government organisations, non-governmental organisations, and research institutions to form advocacy coalitions to create more demand for preconception health support.

RCM professional policy advisor Clare Livingstone said: ‘The RCM has long stressed the importance of good health for those planning to have a baby, which will of course have knock-on effects on the general health of our population. We have also argued about the need for increased education in schools about health, including the need to be healthy before becoming pregnant. As this Lancet series stresses, healthier parents lead to healthier children, with those health benefits lasting into adulthood.

‘Other things can also be done to improve the health of babies including mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid on a UK-wide basis. This would prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and lead to long-lasting improvements in the health of our population.

‘If these changes can be made it will improve the health of our whole population and in the longer term also reduce demand on the NHS. There is a need to invest in public health now which will pay dividends long into the future.’

Access the full series here.