Okro, snails bad in pregnancy, more of superstition than facts

Although conception and delivery are biological events, many communities attach cultural importance to the phenomena. While many societies have taboos that are applicable to members of such societies, there are additional ones for pregnant women that are believed  would protect the woman and her unborn child from evil and ensure safe delivery.

Several communities have food taboos for their pregnant women which inadvertently deprive them of some vital nutrients. Pregnant women in different parts of the world are forced to abstain from nutritious foods.  Their food preferences are also influenced by economics, health conditions, religious requirements and the unpredictable demands of the pregnant body.

Experts who explore the most common food taboos during pregnancy and potential health implications, identified more than 50 types of prohibited food during pregnancy. Examples are fresh meat, eggs, ripe plantain and some fruits and vegetables.

In India, among rural women of Surendranagar, pawpaw (papaya), citrus and groundnut are avoided during pregnancy with the belief that such foods could cause abortion, placental disruption, difficult labour etc.

Nutritious foods such as snails, ripe plantain, okra and many others, in most societies in Africa, mothers or mothers-in-law reinforce are avoided for fear of complications such as  placental disruption, difficult labour and diarrhoea  during pregnancy and childbirth.

The fact however is there is no medical food taboo in pregnancy. The biggest challenge is that most of the taboos lack scientific justification. “The food taboos are based on people’s culture, myths and legends.  The only thing that constitutes a medical food taboo will be a food substance that will be considered a drug,” said Dr. Nike Bello, a consultant obstetric and gynaecologist, University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.

She added, “Imagine a food substance that contains something like marijuana, such will be not be advised as far as we are concerned medically. The only thing that constitutes a medical food taboo will be a food substance that will be considered a drug, a dangerous drug. To some extent, caffeine is also not advised based on findings from studies.”

Many foods and drinks contain caffeine, not just coffee. Examples include some sodas, energy drinks, chocolate, and tea. Some cold and flu remedies also contain caffeine.

Although in Yoruba folklore, there is a taboo against eating things such as okra, snail and milk in pregnancy, Dr. Bello said, “they are all nutritious; they all contain vitamins and other nutrients that are necessary during pregnancy. So if they like them, they can go ahead to eat them.”

Bello declared that things such as eating snails in pregnancy and the new baby drooling saliva or cocoyam or beans causing abdominal discomfort are misconceptions passed from one generation to another.

Some foods are, however, best avoided in pregnancy by women with gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs in pregnancy usually after 20 weeks. There are no symptoms that the blood sugar level is high but sometimes, the woman will experience extreme thirst, hunger, or fatigue.

According to Dr. Bello, “In that situation, the diet will be restricted because it is obvious that the pregnant woman’s body cannot handle sugar the way it should normally.”

Foods pregnant women are advised to avoid because they easily increase blood sugar levels include processed foods such as sausages, sugar-sweetened beverages and foods with added sugar like cakes.

Dr. Bello, however, said such pregnancy-related food beliefs may be inimical to the health of the pregnant woman and her unborn baby. As a result of these practices, pregnant women may suffer from iron and protein deficiencies which could result in anaemia in pregnancy, which increases the risk of hemorrhagic shock and death, especially from bleeding during delivery.

She said: “For a healthy pregnancy, the mother’s diet needs to be balanced and nutritious.  This involves the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and consuming a wide variety of plants like vegetables, and fruits. Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstones of any nutritious diet, and they are especially important during pregnancy.”

In Nigeria, researchers had investigated the food perceived as good and bad or those to be avoided by 148 middle class urban pregnant Hausa and Yoruba women aged 15 to 42 years. They were in their second trimester and attending antenatal care in Agege Local Government maternity centre. The 2010 study was published in the journal, Early Child Development and Care.

Food items perceived as bad and avoided by the Yoruba pregnant women include bush meat because it is forbidden by family and could cause babies to behave similarly when fully grown; snake can cause abortion; cocoyam can cause abdominal discomfort.

Vegetables tagged ‘bad’ by them included Gynuraamplexicalis (Ebolo in Yoruba) and Solanum melgongena (Igbagba in Yoruba). Likewise, some disliked avoiding guava because they do not like the taste, while some avoid oranges because they claimed that it could cause yellow fever and affects a child’s teeth.

Foods items avoided by Hausa women include cassava meals (Eba) because it is thought to cause abdominal discomfort, ache and heaviness. They tagged sweet potato as bad in pregnancy because they assume that it could cause diarrhoea and diabetes. Also, beniseed (Ishwa) is linked with excessive mucus formation in the mother’s womb which causes blindness in the baby.







Fruits like banana are taken off their diet because it is thought to cause intestinal worms; guava could cause constipation or abortion and oranges could make breast milk to be watery. Vegetables such as pumpkin leaf and bitter leaf are also tagged bad and avoided.

According to the study, anaemia was higher among the Hausa women than the Yoruba counterparts. Also, the incidence of low birth weight in this study for Yoruba was 14.8 per cent while the value for the Hausa was 22.9 per cent.

This difference could only be explained as a result of the lack or insufficient intake of green vegetables and fruits items available but not utilised.

More than 50 per cent of the women had weight below the recommended weekly standard of 0.45kg/week. About 66.9 per cent of the women lost weight in their third trimester of pregnancy. Nevertheless, only about 14.9 per cent of the pregnant women had weight extremely above the recommended weight gain/week during the pregnancy.

The difference in weight loss could only be explained in terms of limited and insufficient calories among the women group.

This study also confirms the beliefs of pregnant women that the “outcome of the pregnancy” which is a live baby far outweighs the temporary food restrictions that may be imposed by customs.



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