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Gentlemen, eat your veggies

How research on folate deficiency could change our perception of gender roles

Most women are made aware of their responsibilities when it comes to pregnancy in a way that is almost alien to the majority of men. Gynecologists will explain the wide variety of contraceptives that people have at their disposal, doctors will tell them to stay healthy and fit, and nutritionists will advise taking folic acid supplements (which is essential for numerous bodily functions, and for fertility in both men and women), because, well, you never know. Overall, pre-pregnancy care (or contraception for that matter) is largely perceived as a duty single-handedly carried by females. A McGill study published this past December in Nature Communications might bring an end to these misconceptions.

Folate, a B vitamin found in vegetables and legumes such as asparagus, and liver, plays an important role in the first days or week of pregnancy – a time where most women are not yet aware of their situation. A folate deficiency can lead to neural tube defect – an opening in the brain or the spinal cord of the baby – which is one of the most common birth defects. Only 1 per cent of the Canadian population is folate deficient, as folic acid fortification for grains and flour was made mandatory in 1998. The deficiency, however, tends to be more common among Indigenous people, like Cree communities in Eastern James Bay of Northern Quebec. This is largely due to their diet consisting mostly of animal products, and the relative food insecurity in their communities. As a result, supplementation for women of childbearing age is still advised, considering only 22 per cent reach the higher recommended intake that can prevent birth defects such as neural tube defect from occurring.

The study, led by McGill researcher Sarah Kimmins, suggests that the father’s nutritive status is also important to the health of the fetus. While there have been studies indicating that lifestyle choices and a person’s environment can have an effect on sperm count in males, the McGill study specifically analyzed the effects of folate deficiency in mice sperm on the offspring. The researchers would feed one group of male mice a diet high in folic acid, while the other one received a diet low in folic acid during their lifetime. In an article published on McGill Newsroom, Romain Lambrot, one of the researchers said: “We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 per cent increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient.”

The research puts a new light on the missing equilibrium on gender participation in the discussion of pregnancy and contraception. Health and lifestyle choices before pregnancy and contraception tend to be seen as a female duty. This notion reinforces the labour division in which women are responsible for taking care of the family. Further research in the field of male nutrition – as well as the male population being aware of the effect of their lifestyle choices on future children in the same way that women are – could be a first step in deconstructing the solidified gender norms concerning pregnancy and child-bearing.