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My Family and Other Globalizers | The pregnancy diet

The expecting woman is stuck in a quagmire of less-than-scientifically-robust advice about what she should be denying herself - coffee, sushi, massages, swimming...

July 31, 2022 / 07:45 AM IST
While the exhaustive Chinese view of diet and health denies  pregnant women mangoes, peaches, coconut milk, pine nuts, lamb, coffee, chilli, winter melons, cucumbers, and sesame oil, Western medicine treats raw fish, veggies and mayo with suspicion. (Representational image: Mahmoud Fawzy via Unsplash)

While the exhaustive Chinese view of diet and health denies pregnant women mangoes, peaches, coconut milk, pine nuts, lamb, coffee, chilli, winter melons, cucumbers, and sesame oil, Western medicine treats raw fish, veggies and mayo with suspicion. (Representational image: Mahmoud Fawzy via Unsplash)

Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.

Who knew that being pregnant was so good for your Latin? A few months into baking the bun in my oven that was to become Ishaan, abruptio placenta, placenta accreta, and vasa previa were tripping off my tongue like spells learnt at Hogwarts wizarding school. But the most fearsome amongst these terms was teratogen.

A ‘teratogen’ my dog-eared copy of the pregnancy bible, What to Expect, When You’re Expecting, informed me, was “a substance that is potentially My Family and Other Globalizers logoharmful to a developing embryo or fetus.” And my word, these pesky things were everywhere. Hot tubs, ibuprofen, microwaves and hair dyes were all skulking enemies of the pregnant woman.

But worst, from my point of view, was the fact that even our family cats were suspect. Caramel and Tofu were potential transmitters of a virus called toxoplasmosis, an uber teratogen. Cats could pick up the pathogen by eating a bird or rat and it would then pass into their waste, which in turn could infect a pregnant woman with horrible consequences.

My first pregnancy was spent in Beijing, being treated by an Australian doctor at an expat clinic. And my conclusion at the end of the nine months, was that an expecting woman was screwed, any which way, stuck in a quagmire of less-than-scientifically-robust advice about what she should be denying herself.

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I was doubly denied, caught between the rock of traditional Chinese restrictions, and the hard place of the curbs urged by western science.

“No spice,” my Chinese doctor intoned. Auntie Li, our cook, agreed. As a result, my Sichuan peppercorn-laced diet was replaced with endless bowls of small black chicken soup. The soup itself was insipid. And the black chicken it was made of resembled an exceptionally unattractive vampire bat. Watching parts of the butchered creature take up kitchen space did little to temper the nausea that was my constant companion.

A pregnancy diet in China was no light matter. The stentorian Auntie Li denied me foods that were too warming according to the ontologically exhaustive Chinese view of diet and health. Mangoes, peaches, coconut milk, pine nuts, lamb, coffee, chili and so on, were off the table. But guess what? Cooling foods had to be treated with caution as well. And so, winter melons, cucumbers, sesame oil and another long list of digestibles were also treated with suspicion.

I was strongly advised against getting massages, in particular foot massages. This was akin to denying drugs to a crack addict. I adored writhing about in my seat as a masseur ruthlessly kneaded my metatarsals. But now, massage therapists across China spasmed away in alarm, upon spotting my swelling belly.

The attendants at the gym I frequented became openly hostile as they realized I was planning to keep up my swimming routine through the pregnancy, until I was essentially ordered to stop visiting around the seventh month. In August 2008, a month before the baby was due, Julio and I braved the crowds to watch a few events at the Beijing Olympic Games. As we approached the security queues at the match venues, we were invariably herded into a “special lane” that catered to, “The elder, the little, the sick, the disabled and the pregnant.”

But the restrictions of Chinese culture were only the yin of denial. Western prescriptions were the yang. My Australian doctor was laissez faire, even encouraging, when it came to massage and exercise. But his list of “Nos” was nonetheless as exhaustive as it was exhausting.

Western science advised that a pregnant woman abstain from salad dressings like mayonnaise, raw vegetables in salads, sushi, cold cuts, and unpasteurized cheeses. It proved impossible to look at salami or camembert without fear of in-utero, listeria poisoning after that.

My doctor also informed me that drinking coffee in moderation was probably OK, and a very occasional glass of wine should be fine. But what did ‘probably,’ and ‘should,’ mean, exactly? Was it also possible that coffee in moderation wasn’t OK? Could a glass of wine turn out less than fine?

Economist Emily Oster’s book, Expecting Better, reveals how risk aversion and the "overinterpretation of flawed studies" has come to characterize obstetrics. On becoming pregnant and being ordered to desist from an array of foods and activities, Ms Oster investigated the statistical data underpinning this advice, and was shocked by how little was actually known.

I was equally frustrated by the wooliness of much of the ‘science.’ Abstaining from almost everything that was pleasurable appeared to be the safest, if not the most scientifically vigorous, route to protect your baby. And it took a hard woman indeed, to resist such exhortations, when phrased like that.

But were a pregnant woman foolhardy enough to attempt to eliminate all risk, she would be reduced to nothing but a vessel. It may, arguably, be safest for a fetus if a pregnant woman stays in bed, restricted to a diet of kale and chicken soup. But the pregnant person is a human being, not a baby-producing robot.

To live is to risk and the idea that it is possible, or even desirable, to eliminate all risk is hubris. What we need is to rediscover that underrated friend of the pregnant woman called, common sense. Even better, we need to use it.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning independent journalist who has reported from, and parented in, China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is the author of 'Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the move'.
first published: Jul 31, 2022 07:35 am
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