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Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 May;71(5 Suppl):1226S-32S.

Energy adaptations in human pregnancy: limits and long-term consequences.

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MRC Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


The very slow rate of human fetal growth generates a lower incremental energy stress than in any other mammalian species. This creates a situation in which adaptive changes in metabolic rate and in the amount of additional maternal fat stored during gestation can make a profound difference to the overall energy needs of pregnancy. Comparisons of women in affluent and poor countries have recorded mean population energy needs ranging from as high as 520 MJ to as low as -30 MJ per pregnancy. These energy costs are closely correlated with maternal energy status when analyzed both between and within populations, suggesting that they represent functional adaptations that have been selected for their role in protecting fetal growth. Although this metabolic plasticity represents a powerful mechanism for sustaining pregnancy under very marginal nutritional conditions, it must not be construed as a perfect mechanism that obviates the need for optimal nutritional care of pregnant women. The fact that fetal weight represents up to 60% of total pregnancy weight gain in many pregnancies in poor societies (compared with a well-nourished norm of 25%) indicates that the fetus is developing under suboptimal nutritional and physiologic conditions. It has long been recognized that this has immediate consequences for the offspring in terms of increased perinatal mortality. The more recent appreciation that impaired fetal growth may also precipitate longer-term defects in terms of adult susceptibility to noncommunicable and infectious diseases reinforces the view that pregnancy may be the most sensitive period of the life cycle in which nutritional intervention may reap the greatest benefits.

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