Pregnany nutrition a hot topic for healthy homes

Nutrition around pregnancy needs to be talked about more, according to local doctors, and a new regional-specific handbook might just be the answer.

Dr. Salote Vaai, who runs her own women’s health clinic Health in Her Hands in Vaimea, said she thinks nutrition and lifestyle before, during and after pregnancy is not discussed as often, or in as much detail, as she would like.

But the Pacific Community has released a new handbook on healthy eating during and immediately after pregnancy, especially designed for the Pacific and features context-specific tips for the best food to eat at different stages of pregnancy, including portions and their calories. 

Dr. Vaai said across Samoa, she has noticed there is not enough discussion on diet and lifestyle when it comes to pregnancy and this needs to change.

“As a general practitioner who has 30 minutes with her patients, I have a lot of time to talk about that. But if we look at the antenatal clinic at the hospital or at Samoa Family Health or the district hospitals, where time is limited to at most 10 minutes with each woman, that is not enough time to talk about food,” she said.

And when it comes to food, a simple list of do’s and don’ts does not cover the full breadth of women’s questions and concerns.

“If we don’t have enough time to discuss it we can’t expect women to understand it the way we would hope they would.”

Samoa’s high risk antenatal care clinic at the National Hospital is full of women with hypertension, gestational diabetes, and high blood pressure, Dr. Vaai said. 

These problems can cause issues not only for the pregnancy and labour but for the child’s health too.

Diabetes in pregnancy means babies are at high risk of being born with hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), require an induced labour or caesarean sector or be stillborn.

“We are supposed to be teaching women about planning healthy eating and weight even before they get pregnant but that is often not done at all,” Dr. Vaai added.

“So women will only start to think about food or about changing their nutrition once they are pregnant, but sometimes women don’t find out they are pregnant until they are three or four months into their pregnancy. Then we have already missed these very vital months of nutrition advice and changes we could have implemented.”

The Pacific Islands have among the world’s highest rates of obesity and non-communicable disease, and women bear a large burden of the malnutrition and food insecurity. 

“In light of the Pacific’s current obesity epidemic, the long reaching consequences of poor maternal nutrition paint a worrying picture for the Pacific’s future health,” the Pacific Community publication states.

The guidelines hope to help prevent the next generation in the Pacific from suffering a high burden on non-communicable disease by reducing their risks before birth.

The Pacific Guidelines for Healthy Eating During Pregnancy covers examples of a healthy meal plan for stages of pregnancy including serving sizes, what healthy weight gain looks like, food safety and hygiene and the side effects of pregnancy like nausea and heartburn.

It was developed by the Pacific Community Public Health Division with a Pacific Nutrition Experts Group with members from across the region. 

Dr. Vaai said the material, which is targeted at educators and healthcare workers, could be used across Samoa quite easily.

“Even if my practice I find that sometimes when I give a woman information they say they heard something different, even between health professionals we have different understanding of certain foods or the kinds of nutrition advice we give.

“This is certainly something very good we could just take and copy rather than duplicate the work and use it across healthcare workers and educators to standardise the information we teach.”

Dr. Vaai said she hopes the nutrition advice is taken on by everyone, now that modern medicine can help keep women and babies safe during a precarious period. 

“I think when it comes to pregnancy, nutrition, antenatal care, the world is progressing, medicine is progressing. 

We have the means of being able to find the best information and the best evidence to support the way we do things. We don’t blindly follow tradition anymore, we have evidence that guides us.

“That is not to disrespect or do away with our traditional knowledge, I think there is a lot we can still learn from the way things were done before.”

She said in the age of information with material on every topic available at the push of a button, women will be more discerning about traditional ideas about pregnancy or breastfeeding and want accurate information.

“You can’t be vague anymore. Everything is on social media and on the internet, there is all sorts of information out there. If we want to teach our women to have better knowledge we have got to give them specific information.”

Read more about the Pacific Guidelines for Healthy Eating During Pregnancy here.

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