Thou shall not eat: Of pregnant mums and restricted diets
When a woman gets pregnant, many approach her with dozens of advice and opinions on what she should do or not do during the pregnancy period — how to dress, walk, sleep, sit, where to visit and where not to, who to not talk to and many more.
But all these cannot supersede the cultural barriers put in place by our forefathers, which prohibit pregnant women from eating some types of food. All the 42 communities in Kenya have one or two types of foods, which expectant women are not allowed to eat or touch lest they suffer negative consequences.
Mary Musau who is six months pregnant cannot count the number of times her mother has stopped her from eating some foods or fruits terming them a danger to the unborn baby. “I was told not to eat chili pepper as it will turn my baby blind. I also loved eating lemon to stop nausea, but I was told it will cause patches on my baby’s face!” she shares.
Musau was further told to avoid eggs as the child would be born obese.
Even though she does not believe in all these beliefs, Musau says she follows her mother’s advice of keeping off such foods.
“It is not a matter of believing or not. Being my firstborn, I just wanted to be on the safe side.,” she says.
Most communities associate eggs with having a big child, which can make delivery difficult for the mother as the baby’s head may not pass through the birth canal, forcing the woman to undergo a caesarean section.
Liver, tripe and other animal internal organs are set aside only for men, barren or menopausal women as they are believed to have repercussions on expectant women and the babies they are carrying. It is also believed that some of the animal’s organs such as the tongue makes the pregnant woman and the baby talk too much.
Communities in the Rift Valley region also believe that aside from making the baby big, red meat brings misfortunates to both mother and baby, while sheep meat allegedly causes skin allergy on the unborn baby.
Pregnant women are also advised against eating oily foods, as it will make the baby drool when they are born.
In other parts of the country, pregnant women eat salt-less foods, as salt is believed to make the baby’s skin crack and peel off.
Some vegetables, such as cabbages and kales are said to cause heartburn and nausea to the mother.
Some expectant women are further prohibited from taking fresh milk and are instead advised to take fermented milk to stop the baby from getting obese.
In Isiolo, expectant women are prohibited from eating fish from a lake as well as chicken liver, as they would suffer untold consequences.
At the Coast, pregnant women are advised against snacking on pineapples as they can cause miscarriage.
But how true are these myths and beliefs that have been passed from generation to generation with the majority of the population in the rural area holding tight to these beliefs.
Myths not scientifically proven
A study by four Kenyans and published in a science journal, Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, majority of these dietary precautions are just fears, and lack any scientific proof to be causing the said effects.The study shows the main fears include big fetuses, less blood, lack of strength during birth, miscarriages or stillbirths, and maternal deaths as well as child’s colic and poor skin conditions after birth.
The researchers who based their study on the communities residing in Rift Valley region say the continuing practicing of the said beliefs is as a result of lack of nutritional knowledge among the community as well as the expectant mothers.
Another 2020 study by three officials at Kenyatta University indicated a correlation between the cultural beliefs and anaemic conditions among expectant women. The study shows high levels of poverty and illiteracy among communities in Isiolo propagates these beliefs that sets up a diet for expectant women.
Raymond Ochando, a nurse with a bias on nutrition, says there is no scientific evidence to prove that pregnant women suffer consequences if they defy precautions and eat the prohibited foods.
“Actually, it is the opposite. Most of these prohibited foods have a nutritional value to both mother and the unborn baby. Denying the mother these foods is denying important nutrition to both of them, which they highly need during pregnancy, “he says.
He says while the majority of the urban population might not be following these outdated beliefs, it is likely that the same are followed in the rural areas. As a result, pregnant women might suffer malnutrition or blood deficiency, thus requiring blood transfusion.
Undernourished pregnant women have higher reproductive risks since they are more likely to experience obstructed labour or die during or after childbirth.
In some instances, the effects might pass down to the foetuses who might suffer development or be born with conditions such as protein energy malnutrition, which causes greyish weak hair, kwashiorkor, among others.
Poor nutrition during pregnancy also results in babies growing poorly in the womb and being born underweight and susceptible to diseases.
Aside from the cultural beliefs, Ochando says there has also been an increase in religious precautions, which prohibits the expectant women from eating or doing something. “These religious groups advise pregnant women against blood transfusion, taking some important foods or even visiting hospitals,” he says.