During pregnancy, the nutritional requirements of women increase to support optimum foetal growth and development as well as to prepare her for lactation and the stresses of childbearing. Poor maternal nutrition during pregnancy usually results in low birth weight and high pre-natal and infant mortality, as well as the continuation of the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition. Unfortunately, in India, this phase is associated with numerous myths and misconceptions.
Women from an urban resettlement area in Delhi were interviewed in order to get an idea of common food-related myths and beliefs. Take the experience of Sadhana, whose family was originally based in Uttar Pradesh, “I had only known of saffron as something used in religious ceremonies. But today my mother-in-law gives me saffron milk every day. She believes it will make my child fairer. In fact, she insists on giving me food items that are white in colour, like coconut, milk, eggs!” Pregnant for the first time, Sadhana looks content, almost revelling in the attention.
But there are others who chafe at the restrictions. Take Varsha from West Bengal. She is pregnant for the second time and all she wants is ‘saag’ (spinach). Sadly, she doesn’t get it. Says Varsha, “This time I have a craving for ‘saag’, but my husband’s paternal grandmother doesn’t let me eat it. She believes that if I eat ‘saag’, my baby will have excessive hair growth.”
These and other examples of dietary prescriptions are rooted in the social fabric of a community. Traditionally, a pregnant woman’s diet has been governed by elaborate beliefs and myths. But what is interesting is the sub-text: A good diet is required for a healthy child, not so much for a healthy mother. In fact, as in Varsha’s case, while spinach is an important source of iron for her at a stage when she needs it most, the fear that it may have a “negative” impact on the child means she does not get any.
Residents of this colony are generally migrants, coming from states like Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. They are predominantly Hindus and belong generally to the backward classes. The men work as drivers, sweepers and daily wagers while the women stay at home.
All the beliefs expressed during our interactions are culturally rooted and could vary from region to region. Usually, female members of the conjugal family ‘monitor’ a woman’s pregnancy and lay down an elaborate list of dietary do’s and dont’s.
A pregnant woman’s diet varies with the advancement of her pregnancy. For the purpose of this analysis, pregnancy can be seen in four phases: From the first to the sixth month; from the seventh to the ninth month; on the day of the delivery to five days later; and, finally, from the sixth day onwards.
In the first phase, families take precautions to ensure that the pregnant woman avoids items that supposedly generate “heat” in the body (“garam taasir ka khana”). This includes papaya, eggs, eggplant (brinjal) and piping hot tea. As Geet from Bhind district, Madhya Pradesh, puts it, ‘My mother-in-law used to tell me that there is a high probability that the baby may not grow properly if ‘hot things’ are consumed.”
Some believe that the possibility of a miscarriage also increases with the consumption of ‘hot’ foods. Reveals Ganga, whose daughter-in-law is pregnant, “We give her tender coconut water first thing in the morning. It has a ‘thandi taasir’ (cooling effect), and also makes the baby fairer.”
In some families, the intake of ‘ghee’ (clarified butter), although expensive, is stepped up when a woman is pregnant. Ghee is liberally added to her share of the food. The belief is that ‘ghee’ will not only make the baby healthy, it will ease the delivery process and ensure a safe birth.
The beginning of the second phase – the seventh month – is marked by the Saatavan puja among Hindus, across regions. As per this ritual a pregnant woman is given food of varied tastes – from the salty to the sweet. The belief is that if this ceremony is conducted and the expectant mother fed well, the child will not salivate unduly. Says Reshma, from Bihar, whose daughter-in-law is expecting, “It is my duty to tell her these things, otherwise later people will curse me when my grandson drools.”
Coming to the third phase, generally no food is given to the woman who has just given birth. The belief is that the muscles of the stomach have loosened up during childbirth and are not able to handle cereals. The woman is given ‘hot natured’ foods so that the newborn gets nutritious milk. The view is such foods also help in releasing the placenta from the body. A 59-year-old woman from a family that came here from Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, explains, “My daughter-in-law has just given birth and we have given her ‘harira’ – a mixture of dry fruits, including cashew nuts, almonds, raisins and spices like ‘haldi’ (tumeric), ‘kali mirch’ (pepper), and ‘garam masala’ (all spice powder), cooked with jaggery and ‘ghee’.” She believes this mixture gives strength to the woman and helps in healing her wounds quickly so that she can get back on her feet and take over her responsibilities. The preparation is also believed to improve the quality of the milk of the lactating mother.
How do doctors view such practices? Observes one doctor, who practices in the area, “These kinds of foods given directly after delivery – high in ‘ghee’, dry fruits, and so on – o not help in the placenta getting detached any faster, but they are a good caloric input for the mother. It helps her revive some of the energy lost during labour.” He can reel off numerous myths connected with pregnancy that are popularly expressed here including the common view that cravings for certain food items indicate the sex of the foetus.
On the sixth day after childbirth, the ritual of Chatti takes place especially among communities from UP, Rajasthan, MP and Bihar. From that moment – marking the return of “normalcy” – the woman is allowed to eat cereals in the form of ‘puris’, ‘halwa’ or boiled rice. The new mother is expected to resume her household duties directly after this.
These practices seem to reinforce the image of the woman as a “productive” and “reproductive” being, fed well in order to perform household tasks and provide the family its progeny. Of course, the desire is that the woman “blesses” the family with a male heir, so she is fed appropriate foods. According to one myth, if a woman is fed sweet things and avoids sour items, she will be more likely to give birth to a child of the desired sex.
In fact, the entire handling of nutrition during pregnancy indicates deep-seated social biases against women. The question that arises is why, even in the desire for a healthy progeny, does society give such little thought to the nutrition of girls and women. After all, conditions like anaemia, which ultimately have a direct impact on the health of the newborn, are the result of a lifetime of poor nutrition. But rarely are such views expressed. It is as if all that is required is to feed the woman well during the nine months of pregnancy.
But things may be changing, at least in an urban milieu, with young mothers more aware of health concerns. They know, for instance, the importance of consuming green leafy vegetables. Armed with this knowledge, they can negotiate her food choices in a way their mothers could not and this augurs well for the future.