The claim: The Indian government is advising pregnant women to exercise, avoid eggs and meat, shun desire and lust, and hang beautiful photos in the bedroom.
Reality Check verdict: Some of the advice is good, some bad, and some downright ridiculous.
India’s Ayush ministry, which promotes traditional and alternative medicine, last week distributed a tiny 16-page booklet on Mother and Child Care to journalists. It’s three years old but it’s been dominating news since its re-release just ahead of the annual International Yoga Day, which is being celebrated on Wednesday.
Produced by the Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy, which is a part of Ayush, the booklet dishes out advice on the yoga exercises that pregnant women should – and should not – do; lists of food they should – and should not – eat; and also offers suggestions on what to read, what sort of company to keep, what sort of photos to look at, and so on and so forth.
Doctors in India say though there is merit in some of the advice, it would not be wise to follow the guidelines in their entirety.
Take for instance the advice on food.
The booklet prescribes a long list of items that pregnant and lactating women should take and that includes sprouts, lentils, fruits, leafy vegetables like spinach, dry fruits, juices and whole grain. All very good, say doctors.
Then it lists foods to be avoided – tea, coffee, sugar, spices, white flour, fried items and, rather controversially, “eggs and non-vegetarian” food.
Critics say that is in keeping with India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government’s policy to promote vegetarianism, and that it’s dangerous advice in a country where malnutrition and anaemia among pregnant women has meant India has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world.
Stung by the criticism, the Ayush ministry has issued clarification saying that their suggestion that non-vegetarian food may be avoided is because “yoga and naturopathy doesn’t advocate non-vegetarian food in its practice”. They have also accused the press of “selectively” highlighting the advisory on eggs and meat while forgetting to mention the unhealthy items on the list.
It’s not just the media though, doctors too have questioned their advisory.
“As a doctor I do not see any merit in advising a pregnant woman to not eat eggs or meat. Egg is the easiest and best source of protein,” Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Sonia Naik told the BBC. “My advice would be that whoever is comfortable with whatever diet, they should continue with it.”
The advice is also at odds with the one offered by India’s health ministry on its website: “The foetus extracts iron from the mother, even if she suffers from anaemia, so iron rich foods such as meat, liver, egg, green peas, lentils, green leafy vegetables… should be encouraged to be taken by the mother.”
If many found the advisory on food unpalatable, the next few paragraphs of the booklet offered advice that seemed even more strange:
Although the Ayush ministry insists that it does not “prescribe” that “pregnant women in India” should “say no to sex after conception”, many say the words “detach… from desire and lust” appear to mean exactly that.
Although the health ministry is silent on the matter, doctors say there’s no harm in having sex during pregnancy.
In fact, Dr Naik says that “because of hormonal reasons, some pregnant women may want more sex than usual and we don’t tell them to abstain unless it’s a high-risk pregnancy”.
There is, however, one bit of advice the booklet offers on which there is general consensus – the benefits of yoga.
Although traditional wisdom believed pregnancy to be a delicate time and advised expectant mothers to rest and take it easy, over the years doctors have been advising mothers-to-be to build some form of exercise into their daily routine.
“We all live very sedentary lives now so yoga and exercise are healthy. In fact, we do recommend to women who come to us to do some form of exercise, we even hold prenatal classes for them,” Dr Naik said.
The health ministry too lists the benefits of staying physically active although it advises pregnant women to stay away from “activities in which you can get hit in the abdomen like kickboxing, soccer, basketball, or ice hockey” or “activities in which you can fall like horseback riding, downhill skiing, and gymnastics”.