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It’s become commonplace for pregnant women to avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. When should they start eating healthier for the next generation?

Studies of accidental death victims aged 3 to 26 found fatty streaks—the first stage of atherosclerosis—present in nearly all American kids by the time they were 10 years old. These fatty streaks can turn into full-blown plaques by our 20s and 30s, and can start killing us off by the time we’re 40 or 50.

Atherosclerosis may start even before birth. Researchers found that the arteries of fetuses whose mothers had high LDL cholesterol levels were more likely to contain arterial lesions, suggesting atherosclerosis may not just start as a nutritional disease of childhood, but one during pregnancy.

Pregnancy and BBQ? Though lung cancer is attributed primarily to smoking, approximately a quarter of cases occur in people who’ve never smoked. Some might be due to secondhand smoke, but another contributing cause may be another potentially carcinogenic plume: fumes from frying. A study on pregnant women and barbecuing found that not only was the ingestion of grilled meat in the third trimester associated with smaller birth weights, mothers merely exposed to the fumes tended to give birth to babies with a birth-weight deficit.

And industrial pollutants? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most women’s bodies in the United States are contaminated with heavy metals, toxic solvents, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, fire retardants, chemicals from plastics, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and banned pesticides. In many cases, 99 to 100 percent of the women were found to have detectable levels of these pollutants in their bloodstreams. Pregnant women were found to harbor, on average, up to 50 different chemicals, and researchers found detectable DDT residues in 95 percent of umbilical cord samples from women who had recently given birth—and this is now decades after the pesticide was banned. Which foods seem to contribute the most heavy metals and other pollutants? The number-one source of arsenic was poultry among preschoolers and, for their parents, tuna. The top source for lead? Dairy. For mercury? Seafood.

If women want to clean up their diets before conception, results suggest that within a year of stopping fish consumption, we can detox nearly 99 percent of mercury. Unfortunately, other industrial pollutants in fish can take longer: The half-lives for certain dioxins, PCBs, and DDT by-products found in fish are as long as ten years.


Image Credit: AND-ONE / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

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