Experts now believe that pregnancy diet is likely to influence an unborn baby’s developing immune system, and reduce the likelihood of allergic disease in childhood.1 In particular, vitamins A and D, folic acid and omega 3 have been linked to immune function and may help your baby to develop immunity and resilience that will stay with them for life.
The link between immunity and allergy
We’ve long understood the role of vitamins and minerals in infant development; we know that calcium is needed for healthy bone growth, iron is essential for brain development, and vitamin C helps skin and tissue to form. But scientists are now turning their attention to the link between pregnancy nutrition and infant immunity.
Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and fats in pregnancy have been linked to
Thankfully, the more we understand about the baby immune system and the factors affecting it, the more we can do to strengthen immune function and resilience, and reduce the prevalence of allergies.
Pregnancy food and immunity
The Western diet – in which red meat, sugar, butter, vegetable oils, refined grains and processed foods feature heavily – has been linked to an increase in allergies among children.2 The Mediterranean diet, however – rich in fruits and vegetables and with less dairy and red meat – is associated with a reduced risk of allergy development.3
Specifically, it’s suggested that a healthy pregnancy diet with an increased intake of particular types of fish, fruit, vegetables and foods rich in omega-3 and vitamin D may reduce the risk of childhood allergies such as eczema, wheeze, asthma and allergy sensitivities.1
Nutrients to boost baby immunity
Evidence suggests that a lack of Vitamin D in pregnancy may be associated with the development of childhood asthma.4 Getting the right amount of vitamin D from natural sources can be difficult – it’s only available from a few foods and mostly produced in response to sunlight. That’s why pregnancy supplements contain vitamin
As well as supporting the development of your baby’s lungs, eyes and skin cells, vitamin A also contributes to the development of your baby’s immune system.5 But too much vitamin A can be harmful so you should avoid foods like pâté and liver. Instead, include foods which contain safe levels of vitamin A such as orange-coloured fruits and vegetables, dairy and eggs.
Making sure your pregnancy diet includes omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (fish oil) may help to reduce sensitisation to common food allergens in the first year of life.2 Oily fish such as mackerel and salmon are good sources of
You’re advised to take a folic acid supplement before you conceive and continue for 12 weeks into your pregnancy to reduce the risk of your baby developing neural tube defects (NTDs).7 But it would seem that folates do more than just prevent NTDs; recent research suggests that too little folate may interfere with normal immune function. Too much, however, has been associated with lower respiratory tract infections amongst children.8 This means that, although taking a folate supplement is worthwhile, there is such a thing as ‘too much’ folate. The recommended daily amount, and the amount present in most pregnancy
Peanuts are not advised to be eaten by any children before 6 months. Some evidence suggests that early exposure to allergens in the first few months of life may trigger an allergy in those with family history.9 If there’s a history of allergy in the family, parents are advised to introduce peanuts with care after 6 months. However, the opposite may be true in pregnancy. Recent studies suggest that including peanuts and peanut butter in your pregnancy diet may well protect your baby from developing a peanut allergy whilst still in the womb.10 So unless you’re allergic to peanuts yourself, eating peanuts now might improve your baby’s resilience in future.
- Learn more about what’s a considered a ’balanced’ pregnancy diet.
- Include lots of fruit and vegetables, including orange-coloured
veglike carrots, oranges and sweet potatoes.
- Opt for lean white meat and oily fish over red meat
- Avoid saturated fats, and instead eat omega-3-rich fats such as those found in oily fish, walnuts and flax seeds.
- Stay up to date on the recommended pregnancy vitamins and minerals.
1. Venter C, Brown KR, Maslin K, Palmer DJ. Maternal dietary intake in pregnancy and lactation and allergic disease outcomes in offspring. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2017;28(2):135-143.
2. Miles EA, Calder PC. Can Early Omega-3 Fatty Acid Exposure Reduce Risk of Childhood Allergic Disease? Nutrients. 2017;9(7). pii: E784. doi: 10.3390/nu9070784.
3. Loo EXL, Ong L, Goh A, et al. Effect of Maternal Dietary Patterns during Pregnancy on Self-Reported Allergic Diseases in the First 3 Years of Life: Results from the GUSTO Study. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2017;173(2):105-113.
4. Feng H1, Xun P, Pike K, In utero exposure to 25-hydroxyvitamin D and risk of childhood asthma, wheeze, and respiratory tract infections: A meta-analysis of birth cohort studies. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2017;139(5):1508-1517.
5. NHS UK. Vitamin A [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-A.aspx[Accessed March 2018]
6. NHS UK. Can I take cod liver oil supplements when I’m pregnant? [Online]. 2014. Available at: www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/1757.aspx?CategoryID=54&SubCategoryID=129 [Accessed March 2018]
7. NHS UK. Why do I need folic acid in pregnancy [Online] Available at https://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/913.aspx?categoryid=54[Accessed March 2018]
8. Marques AH, Bjorke-Monsen AL, Teixeira AL, Silverman MN. Maternal stress, nutrition and physical activity: impact on immune function, CNS development and psychopathology. Brain Research. 2015;1617:28–46.
9. Brough HA, Kull I, Richards K, et al. Environmental peanut exposure increases the risk of peanut sensitization in high risk children. Clin Exp Allergy. 2018: doi: 10.1111/cea.13111. Epub Ahead of Print.
10. Loo EXL, Ong L, Goh A, et al. Effect of Maternal Dietary Patterns during Pregnancy on Self-Reported Allergic Diseases in the First 3 Years of Life: Results from the GUSTO Study. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2017;173(2):105-113.
Last reviewed: 4th May 2018
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