Carol Cheatham, Ph.D., developmental cognitive neuroscientist with the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI), was recently invited to appear as featured speaker with an international public education campaign. The campaign, sponsored by Abbott Nutrition, makers of Similac infant formula, was designed to establish greater awareness of proper nutrition for pregnant women in Vietnam and Singapore. In her role at the NRI, Cheatham studies the effects of nutrition on memory and attention from prenatal months to preschool years, making her the ideal resource to share the science behind prenatal diet recommendations in this campaign.

Cheatham was warmly received as featured presenter in a lecture tour, which was a primary part of the broader, multi-national education campaign, with the ultimate goal of enhancing infant and child health levels in these countries.

On the tour, Dr. Cheatham addressed health professionals, including OB/GYN Physicians in Singapore and midwives in Vietnam, the primary healthcare support during pregnancy and delivery in that nation. To help cascade the message even further to the public, Dr. Cheatham and the other lecturers spoke directly to the media in Vietnam, encouraging increased communication throughout the nation about nutrition.

The speaker panel featured Dr. Cheatham as the leading science resource, providing the technical research behind the panel’s common message of maternal nutrition. She shared the stage with other prominent health experts, including leaders in medicine and government, who corroborated her emphasis on the importance of a mother’s prenatal nutrition. Other panel speakers included a highly recognized Vietnamese government official, the General Secretary of the National Institute of Nutrition, Dr. Tu Gnu, M.D., Ph.D., and a prominent Vietnamese Director of Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Center, Dr. Do Thi Ngoc Diep.

In her presentation, “Maternal Nutrition and Cognition of Infants and Toddlers,” Dr. Cheatham spoke about the importance of certain necessary nutrients, the risks of deficiencies, and how to obtain the nutrients through proper diet. Much of this information was new to many in her audience because the importance of women’s nutrition to the development of their children is still new for many people around the world. Through Cheatham’s lecture, the audience learned that during the prenatal months and first two years of life, any nutritional deficiencies will have an enormous effect on the developing brain.

“The women of Vietnam, Singapore, and many other countries need to more fully understand the importance of proper nutrition — it is critical to their child’s brain development,” states Cheatham. “The education gap on maternal diet presents quite a learning opportunity in these areas, thus the need for this education campaign. With our new information around proper diet, they are learning the foods that provide the essential nutrients. The people of these nations, both professionals and the public, both urban and rural, will benefit greatly from awareness of this issue.”

Dr. Cheatham’s research pivots on her findings that proper nutrition among pregnant mothers is critical to the brain development of the fetus and the subsequent cognitive development of the infant. To explain the applicability of this research to her audience, Cheatham elaborated on the importance of certain nutrients, such as folate, iron, and iodine in a pregnant woman’s diet, and food sources of these nutrients. For example, seaweed and other sea vegetables readily available in Southeast Asia were promoted in order to ensure appropriate levels of iodine intake among these populations, since pregnant women are often counseled to avoid salt, a major source of iodine, as a way to prevent prenatal complications such as high blood pressure. “This recommendation was essential to share because iodine deficiency is still the #1 cause of mental retardation worldwide. By raising awareness about the importance of prenatal nutrition, we can directly and positively impact their national health statistics,” explained Dr. Cheatham.

Cheatham had the added challenge of developing her presentation content with local cultural beliefs and practices in mind. For instance, pregnant women of these areas often do not eat with their baby’s brain development as a consideration. Instead, their pregnancy goal commonly is lighter newborn birth weight, since the mothers typically have relatively petite frames and want to decrease the risk of birthing complications and obstetric issues, especially in the rural areas where healthcare may not be readily accessible. This common practice of limited caloric intake during pregnancy, while an accepted part of their culture, will have a negative impact on fetus brain development. Therefore, one challenge for the education campaign is to encourage proper nutrients through a healthy prenatal diet, while also respecting cultural beliefs and fears around the birthing process.

By hearing Cheatham’s proven research results on brain development and links to diet, her audience of government health officials, clinicians, and the public can make fact-based diet decisions, resulting in enhanced health levels for children of these countries.

Fortunately, Cheatham’s influence will not end with the lecture attendees. As part of this education campaign, Cheatham will participate in upcoming live webinars, making her research findings accessible to people in less urban areas of the country who could not attend the lectures in person. “The research we’re doing is significant on a global scale,” Dr. Cheatham elaborates. “There are still millions of people that could benefit from our research. Communication is key.” Through these live online forums, her message will have extended impact to an even larger scope of audience, helping to educate a broader range of mothers.

Steven Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., and Director of the NRI shares, “This was a valuable opportunity for the NRI to communicate our message, research, and knowledge with a population that is not yet educated in prenatal diet. Dr. Cheatham provided insight and influence to those who desperately need it. And through her partnership with the Asian governments and health professionals, she has gained valuable international exposure for the NRI, helping to further establish our credibility and solidify the NRI’s global reputation as the leader in nutrition science.”

By influencing the nutrition recommendations of health professionals, and personal diet decisions of the public, Dr. Cheatham’s lecture is one more example of how the NRI contributes to the health of future generations.