Sunday, October 23, 2011

Children need calories, not nagging TV Chefs and BMI targets

Last week came the news that being too thin can be just as damaging as being too fat when it comes to women trying to get pregnant.

Experts in Chicago analysed data from 2,362 cycles of IVF involving women under the age of 40. For women who were underweight – with a body mass index (BMI) of between 14 and 18 – the chance of delivering a healthy baby was 34 per cent. It was significantly higher (50 per cent) in healthy or slightly overweight women (with a BMI of 19 to 28), and was 45 per cent in very overweight and obese women (BMI of 29 to 43).

To be honest, I don't understand why they thought this research was worth funding. I am always shocked when the likes of Victoria Beckham or superstylist Rachel Zoe manage to get pregnant.

My first thought is always: How is that even possible? If these superhumanly thin famous women employed any high-tech trickery, I doubt they would tell us. So there is this big myth that being thin doesn't compromise your life in any way, it merely makes it marvellous.

Look at the contestants on The X Factor. The first thing they are subjected to is a fitness regime, viz the charmingly chubby Craig Colton, forced to run on the treadmill when surely he should be honing his songwriting skills, or learning how to decode the small print on all those recording contracts.

I wish they had kept curvaceous Scot Jade, who would have encouraged a million teenage girls to chuck away their calorie-counters and toxic chocolate-covered 'diet' bars. She was passed over in favour of young women who either look like hookers or nymphs.

Why is it so difficult for underweight women to conceive? When you starve your body, it shuts down all but essential services. Hormone production is one of the first to go. Your body believes you are under assault and that times are hard (for the eating-disorder sufferer both assumptions are correct) and so it doesn't believe bringing another mouth into the world is very wise. Without enough fat, women stop producing oestrogen, which in turn ripens and releases eggs.

I would have laughed had it not been so tragic when my gynaecologist told me I still have the eggs of an 18-year-old. That was the age I both started (briefly) and then stopped (more or less for ever) menstruating. These eggs are not viable, of course, merely sort of in aspic, a relic of the life I could have had, if only I'd eaten.

I don't want to go on about anorexia, the causes or the cures. Instead, I want to talk about the responsibility of having children. Now, even though I complain when small infants shriek unmuffled during my spa days atop Harrods, there were points in my life when I did try to get pregnant.

I lied to my then boyfriend about being on the Pill; I actually stole my husband's sperm, even when our divorce was clearly on the cards (I won't go into the gory details, but if there is anyone out there reading this who has a son, please tell him not to underestimate the duplicity of women).

If I'd had a child, it is more than likely I would have passed on to her or him my issues with food and body image. I was in a hotel on Friday morning having breakfast. A couple of tables away, a gay couple were sat with their daughter, who was about five or six. She was wearing a tracksuit and she was, it has to be said, a little on the chubby side.

She kept getting up and browsing the elaborate, sumptuous buffet (it was the Four Seasons, after all). She came back nursing a tall glass of orange juice. 'Do you know how many calories are in that juice?' asked one of the men. 'Didn't we talk about diluting?'

And I saw her future mapped out for her. Never again will food just be something enjoyable; it will come with a figure: the number of calories, as well as her own. Which should shrink at all costs. Food will occupy her thoughts as she goes to sleep and when she wakes up. She will know, in fine detail, what she ate yesterday. She will plan what she will eat tomorrow.

Most often, she will fail to hit her target. But if she is the steely, self-disciplined type, she might succeed, and so have a lifetime of denial to look forward to. And loneliness. Until she shrivels like a prune, desiccated and defeated, or yo-yos in size ever more violently.

Forget the Government's BMI targets. Forget too Jamie Oliver's bid to get kids eating more healthily. Kids need calories. Don't make food an issue. Make it an irrelevance. And if you can't, then don't make kids.


The breastfeeding wars go on

The decision about how to feed a new baby is often unnecessarily fraught.

Last year, when supermodel Gisele Bundchen made her infamous comment that there should be a "worldwide law" that mothers breastfeed for six months, I was one of those who jumped up and down with outrage. Bundchen retracted her statement, but it was too late. Women hated her.

I don't want to be told what to do, let alone with my body. The right to choose must be protected and "breastfeeding bullies", as they are often called, do no one favours. What I wasn't prepared for, then, was the sheer weight of anti-breastfeeding myths I've found since I became a parent this year. And now I realise these sentiments found their way into my psyche long before I even thought about starting a family.

My reservations were largely informed by comments about pain, pushy midwives, "saggy" breasts, and the more "liberated" modern choice to skip breastfeeding altogether. I worried I would be embarrassed in public. I mistrusted my body's ability to do it at all. On some level I expected to fail, and feared being made to feel guilty by some nosey "Breast is Best" advocate.

Instead, what I found surprised me. Breastfeeding, when it works, is as enjoyable for mums as for babies, and while nursing is natural, it is also learned. The most basic reason for this is that we don't see breastfeeding. We don't watch babies regularly attach to nipples and suckle every day the way people in more traditional cultures do.

We have made breastfeeding all but invisible and taboo. As Germaine Greer has written, in our culture breasts are viewed as sexual organs, not as a source of nutrition.

There was something of a furore in 2008 when Angelina Jolie appeared on a magazine cover breastfeeding. Similarly, a photograph of Miranda Kerr breastfeeding her son caused mixed reactions of praise and disapproval, while provocative photographs of her in lingerie and swimwear don't cause a whiff of controversy.

Breastfeeding has become a battleground. A mention on my Twitter account of public breastfeeding earned me the comment, "Many folk are made uncomfortable by it. Think of others." On the US TV drama Game of Thrones, breastfeeding was used as a metaphor for perversion and madness when a mentally unstable queen breastfed her son of age seven or eight while addressing her court. One of the more popular gross-out skits on comedy show Little Britain concerned an adult man who still breastfeeds on his wedding day.

In a 2009 article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin called the breast-is-best movement an "upper-class parents' jingle" and suggested breastfeeding is "an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down".

No wonder we are confused. Between the breast-is-best push and its backlash, we are giving women seriously conflicting messages. Sometimes infant formula is necessary. But when women choose not to breastfeed let's make sure they are informed about exactly what they are choosing.

What I didn't expect, after some tough moments in the early days that nearly saw me quit, was that I would benefit so much from nursing. I am yet to find a stress relief quite so instant and gratifying. Six to eight times a day my shoulders relax, my hormones do wonderful things for me and that happy drug hits. When my daughter is unsettled, I need only attach her to my bosom to see that tiny fist relax.

According to UNICEF, breastfed children have 15 per cent fewer GP consultations in the first six months and at least six times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children. The benefits don't stop there: medical experts report that breastfeeding has the potential to prevent 1.4 million deaths in children under five in the developing world; and people who were breastfed have lower mean blood pressure and lower total cholesterol, and perform better in intelligence tests. If a pill did all that, we'd race out in droves to buy it.

Every parent does the best they can and things don't always work out the way we desire. But with more supportive workplaces for nursing mothers, more breastfeeding-friendly communities and better support in the first crucial days, most obstacles are avoidable and better outcomes for mothers and babies possible.


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