Pregnancy and baby diet trends negatively impacting babies’ health

Published On: 23 May 2024

Only half of babies between 6-12 months old are being given eggs - not only missing out on nutrients vital for development

A review of the latest nutritional research warns that babies’ health is being put at risk by poor diets during the critical first 1001 days of life – from conception to 2 years of age.

The research, published in the British Journal of Midwifery, showed that 90 per cent of pregnant women were lacking key vitamins necessary for healthy pregnancies and the future wellbeing of their babies.

A combination of ultra-processed food (UPF), the cost-of-living crisis, confusion over the latest weaning advice and avoidance of animal products, means that many pregnant women and babies are not eating natural, nutrient-dense foods such as eggs.

Only half of babies between 6-12 months old are being given eggs - not only missing out on nutrients vital for development, but also increasing the risk of an egg allergy in later life.

Dr Emma Derbyshire, author of The Role of Egg Consumption in the First 1001 Days of Life: A Narrative Review of recent research, warns: “Nutrients such as high-quality protein, vitamin D, choline and folate are particularly critical for babies’ development during the first 1001 days and eggs are one of the few natural foods that contain all of them.

“But many women mistakenly cut eggs out of the diet during this period, despite previous concerns about food safety and allergy having been overturned. In fact, avoiding eggs could increase the chance of the baby developing an allergy.”

The new paper reviewed research published in the last five years, analysing the significant impact of nutrition during the first 1001 days of life, when enormous physiological changes take place during pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy.

Dr Derbyshire concludes: “Few everyday foods provide the right combination of nutrients in a bio-available format for this critical period. Eggs are unique in containing the array of key nutrients needed to support a developing embryo, as well as being affordable and practical, so midwives and other healthcare professionals need to encourage mums to include them in their and their babies’ diets.”

Pregnancy diets insufficient
Researchers at the University of Southampton identified that 90 per cent of pregnant women eating modern diets were missing key nutrients and this is predicted to be exacerbated with a move to plant-based foods.

“Eggs are a natural (non-processed) food with a low environmental impact so for vegetarians the integration of eggs could be a particularly useful mode of delivering additional nutrients into diets,” says Dr Derbyshire.

The consumption of UPF in pregnancy has been associated with reduced cognitive domains (verbal ability) in early childhood.

Critical nutrients lacking
Six key nutrients found in eggs (choline, DHA, folate, vitamin D, iodine and iron) were identified in the report as being important in the maternal diet for the child’s brain development. Importantly the bio-availability of choline and essential amino acids was found to be higher from eggs than from certain supplements.

Two studies highlighted in the new paper reported that the majority of pregnant women were not meeting recommended intakes for choline.

And a further study published in April 2024 shows that 89% of pregnant women are not achieving choline recommendations.

Animal proteins such as meat, eggs and fish are particularly high in choline, although it can also be found in a small number of plant-based foods such as almonds and lima beans. Natural choline from eggs has been shown to be absorbed more efficiently than from certain supplements.

“Choline has a vital role in brain development and neurocognition, with a recent meta-analysis reporting that lower maternal choline intakes were associated with a higher odds ratio for neural tube defects[6],” says Dr Derbyshire.

Most recently, it has been recognised that choline in the maternal diet is needed to maintain normal liver function in the foetus and breastfed infants and depletion could contribute to fatty liver[7].

Eggs are also an important provider of fatty acids, with DHA in particular thought to be critical for brain development and visual acuity in early life with this nutrient increasingly thought to work in synergy with choline.

Confusion over advice for babies
The new review suggests that confusion amongst healthcare professionals is due to previous advice related to egg allergy and food safety concerns.

The NHS now advises that eggs produced under the British Lion Code of Practice can be safely eaten in raw or lightly cooked forms by pregnant women, babies, and that eggs should be introduced early in the weaning process, as avoidance in pregnancy or weaning can increase the risk of egg allergy in the infant.

A recent meta-analysis analysing data from 3,575 children aged 6 months to 6 years also found that those eating eggs also had improved height, length and weight[8].

“Given the change in guidance regarding egg safety and allergy, and the growing evidence-base demonstrating the nutritional benefits of egg consumption across pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childhood, it is important to now communicate this information to healthcare professionals. This can then be put into context and conveyed to parents and carers as many are restricting consumption of eggs due to confusion over current advice,” concludes Dr Derbyshire.