Speaking in Ho Chi Minh City at an international conference on nutrition for infants' cognitive development organised by the Việt Nam Association of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, former National Institute of Nutrition deputy director Dr Lê Bạch Mai said pregnant women in Vietnam receive only half the required calcium in their meals, as well as insufficient lipids.
She said, "The average weight that a pregnant woman gains in the country is 9.4kg, lower than the recommended 10kg to 12kg."
Low weight gain in pregnancy can be attributed to nausea and poor appetite, and affects newborns' development.
Breast is not always best
University of Adelaide senior clinical lecturer Dr Jacqueline Gould said, "Nutrients are the biological foundation of the brain and needed for everyday functioning.
"Calcium is best known for neuronal development and muscle movements, while 11% of (the) brain is lipid; breast milk is high in lipids."
She also referred to the WHO's recommendation for mothers to breastfeed for at least the first six months of their babies' lives, and up to two years or more, with suitable complementary feeding to boost young children's growth, development, nutrition and immunologic protection.
The problem in Vietnam, however, is that 35% of breastfeeding mothers feed their infants breast milk containing insufficient vitamin A, said Mai.
She said pregnant women should consume six units of milk and other dairy a day in order to ensure suitable and sufficient nutrients to support foetal conception and growth, as well as brain development.
Alternatively, they could take specialised nutritional products meant for expectant and breastfeeding mothers.
"Nutrition in the early stages is very important for the foetus, (and) preventing neural tube defects and malnutrition, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart problems when they grow up," said Mai.
Protein is also crucial for pregnant and breastfeeding women, according to the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute's Professor Tim Green, particularly in Asia where carbohydrate consumption is high.
Sufficient protein intake produces the gangliosides required for optimum cognitive function in vitro and in early life.
He said, "The maternal increase in ganglioside intake improves infants' accrual of gangliosides. Human breast milk contains more gangliosides than infant formula, so breastfed infants have higher levels of brain gangliosides."