By Michelle Henning
As a child, I was always sick. I had recurring ear infections and suffered from candida. Any sort of cream, spray, or cosmetics on my skin would make me explode with hives. As a teenager, I also developed hay fever and asthma, followed by a generous helping of severe acne.
It didn’t occur to me back then that my diet could have anything to do with my allergies and skin problems.
I thought my diet was fine. After all, my dad is a chef – he used to let me sit in the kitchen of our seaside fish restaurant in Ireland and watch him cook. Even so, in retrospect, I didn’t always eat a very healthy diet at home. Money was always tight, and when my parents were working, my brother and I often had tinned spaghetti hoops and some weird pink powdered mousse called Angel Delight for dinner.
Then, in secondary school, we had to take a class on food science. To me, the link between my diet and my health felt like a revelation, and I went on to study Nutritional Therapy. Based on what I learned, I gradually changed my whole diet. I ditched hyper-processed foods and switched to whole foods. My acne cleared completely, and my allergies and even my moods improved dramatically.
In 2011, I met my husband Victor. At the time, the stress of running his own company had made his childhood eczema and allergies flare up badly. While his stress and lack of sleep were bad, his diet was even worse. He lived on white toast for breakfast, and microwave meals for lunch and dinner! As we were living in different cities, I taught him to cook over Skype and – fast forward 10 years – he has now become a really good cook. Changing his diet has made a huge difference: His skin has cleared up, and his other allergies have also improved significantly.
When we decided to try for a baby, we combined our backgrounds (Victor is a scientist by training) and poured ourselves into researching what we could do to lower our baby’s risk of inheriting our chronic conditions.
What we found was that – by eating a varied diet of whole foods, and switching to natural cosmetics and cleaning products – you can reduce your child’s risk for these conditions significantly, perhaps by as much as 80-90%!
So – as a mum-to-be, how can doing these things set your baby on a path to lifelong good health? By fostering and protecting a healthy microbiome – that is, the friendly bacteria in your gut! Your microbiome is passed on to your child via birth and breastfeeding and then plays a crucial role in shaping your baby’s immune system. Certain lactic acid bacteria, like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, are especially effective in suppressing allergic responses as well as preventing the development of chronic diseases.
What you eat on a daily basis changes the composition of your gut microbiome. Thus, what kind of foods let your friendly helpers thrive?
1) Plant-based foods
Plant-based foods are rich in dietary fibre – these are your friendly bacteria’s preferred food. They ferment the fibre into short-chain fatty acids, which are highly anti-inflammatory and turn down the activity of genes linked to the development of allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and cancers.
Essentially, this means: Eat whole foods and cook from fresh ingredients. Try to avoid processed foods with artificial ingredients. A tasty and easy way to consume lots of fibre is to follow the Mediterranean diet: Fish, fresh vegetables and herbs, beans and other legumes, accompanied by crunchy whole-grain bread to dunk in peppery olive oil, and perhaps some nuts and fruits for dessert.