Last Sunday Olivia Judson, the New York Times’s resident evolutionary biologist, wrote a guest column referring to a study that has been troubling me for a month or so. Apparently if you give two groups of pregnant and lactating rats two different meal plans—group A can choose unlimited rat food or unlimited human junk food; group B gets unlimited rat food only—you see two results. The rats in group A eat about 50 percent more food than the rats in group B, and baby rats born into group A are more likely to overeat and gain too much weight as they mature.
My initial reaction to this news was, “I am not a rat.” And then, “Do we really need studies to tell us that a healthy diet is, well, healthier—during pregnancy or any time?” Judson clarifies what is at stake, which, by her lights, is the possibility that we Americans are entering a cycle of obesity that will be very hard to break. If the children of women with poor diets are predisposed to obesity before they are even born, it will be extraordinarily difficult for them to maintain a reasonable weight once they are free to eat as they please in our culture of fast and processed foods.
Although it is unclear whether the rat study drew a distinction between the effects of overeating and obesity, Judson does: she speculates that it is not the junkiness or greater quantity of food that alters fetal development, but rather the obese mother’s atypical hormonal profile. That is, she supposes that gorging yourself while pregnant may be less of a problem than becoming pregnant when you are already severely overweight. This eased my mind a bit about the bags of chips and pints of ice cream I’ve sneaked into my diet in the past eight (eight now!) months; as silly as it sounds, and as skeptical as I am of rat studies, I had allowed myself a moment to imagine having cursed our baby with a supervirulent strain of my own guilty, greedy passion for Doritos. If Judson is right, the fact that my weight is healthy and my diet is generally balanced will mean that baby’s eventual struggles with junky temptation will be no greater than normal. I haven’t stacked the deck against her.
Judson’s ultimate message is that women planning to conceive would do well to establish a healthy diet and weight first, for their own sake and for their babies. Common sense, sure, but it’s surprising how common sense can take a coffee break when you’re hungry (and busy and tired). Even if all of the above ends up applying only to rats, most of us humans could bear a few more healthy dinners that aren’t depressing or bland. Quinoa chowder with spinach, feta, and scallions is one that I like; it may sound weird, but it is tasty, filling, and full of good stuff.
- 3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well in a fine sieve
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 jalapeno chile, seeded and finely diced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin or to taste
- Salt and freshly milled pepper
- 1/2 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1 bunch scallions, including an inch of the greens, thinly sliced into rounds
- 3 cups finely sliced spinach leaves (chard works, too)
- 1/4 pound feta cheese, finely diced or crumbled
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
Put the quinoa and 2 quarts water in a pot, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. While it’s cooking, dice the vegetables and cheese. Drain, saving the liquid. Measure the liquid and add water to make 6 cups if needed.
Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and chile. Cook for about 30 seconds, giving it a quick stir. Add the cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, and the potatoes and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Don’t let the garlic brown. Add the quinoa water and half the scallions and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the quinoa, spinach, and remaining scallions and simmer for 3 minutes more. Turn off the heat and stir in the feta and cilantro. Season the soup with pepper and garnish with the chopped egg.