Should you crash diet for your baby?

Are you thinking about having a baby? Wait. Spare a thought for your unconceived child. Yes, unconceived. Your baby may be a mere glint in your eye, but don't think you can simply toss the condoms into the bin and start having sex. According to Dr Michel Odent, the French obstetrician who invented birthing pools in the 70s, an "unconceived generation" is under threat. Toxins lurk in our fat cells waiting to filter through the placenta into the growing foetus. His theory is that before you get pregnant, you must clean up your fat.

Odent's ideas have long been controversial. His birthing pools were originally considered perilous; today, more than 30 National Health Service hospitals have them. Recently he wrote a book claiming that children would be healthier and happier if mothers breastfed for three to five years while allowing their men to have multiple sexual partners.

His current thesis appears to be rather more scientific. Our fat stores, he argues, contain hundreds of synthetic chemicals, from things like plastics, herbicides, pesticides or car exhaust fumes which would not have been there 50 years ago. It is already established that we pass these chemicals to babies through breast milk. Odent goes further, claiming that: "Intra-uterine pollution represents arguably the most serious threat humanity has to face at the turn of the century."

Some of the chemicals in women's fat "mimic" the female hormone oestrogen. Odent believes that these "oestrogen mimickers" are passed to unborn babies. This, he says, has caused sperm counts to fall dramatically (some say by half) during the past 50 years and has led to a rise in genital abnormalities in boys, testicular cancer and even miscarriages. His solution, called "the accordion method", is to purge "dirty" fat stores, then build up new, "clean" ones. You fast to lose weight, then eat (healthily) to gain it back. Odent likens the process to taking a glass of dirty water, tipping out a little, and refilling it with clean water. "Overall, the water won't be clean," he says, "but it'll be improved."

He offers weekend courses in London during which participants stop eating, sip cocktails made of maple syrup, palm-tree syrup and lemon juice (plus minerals and vitamins), listen to lectures on giving birth or breastfeeding and take steam baths and walks on Hampstead Heath, north London. They are then sent off with some laxative tea and instructions on how to continue the fasts, stopping, crucially, before conception.

To ensure that the fat regained is "clean", you are advised to eat foods from the beginning of the food chain (sardines are less polluted than sharks: the latter are big fish which eat little fish); peel fruit and vegetables, consume garlic (a purifier) and vitamin C, and go organic.

There is much evidence to support the notion of intra-uterine pollution. One study of children whose mothers ate a lot of fish from the heavily contaminated Lake Michigan during pregnancy, showed that these children tended to have lower birth weights and verbal IQs (though there is no evidence of the chemicals affecting boys' genitals). And you may remember Joella Holliday, a 10-year-old girl classified as male at birth who was born with undeveloped testes and no vagina. Joella's case was extreme but her endocrinologist said: "If you are looking for a common denominator, oestrogen in the environment would be a plausible possibility."

However, other experts say the evidence that oestrogen-mimicking hormones are affecting our unborn children is far from conclusive. Dr Robert Frazer, who runs the eating in pregnancy helpline at Sheffield's Northern General hospital, finds Odent's programme "fascinating". But he is also cautious. While he cites cases showing that high toxin levels in late pregnancy can damage the foetal brain, he says evidence of "reproductive harm" in the UK is "negligible". It would, he concludes, "be nice to see Odent's ideas tested in clinical trials" before women start routinely purging themselves.

Indeed, any endeavour that persuades women to (effectively) yo-yo diet is surely problematic. Most women I know, overweight or not, would be delighted to shed a few pounds. Odent expects his clients to lose between two and three kilos per fast. So what if you then keep the weight off? Sarah Banfield, dietetic services manager at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, says the "mainstream of preconceptional advice is that you shouldn't lose weight unless you are clinically obese".

Becoming underweight could make it harder to conceive and adversely affect the baby's development. Also, a regular binge-starve routine, she warns, could "permanently disrupt your metabolic level" not to mention encourage dangerous eating habits.

The accordion method could, of course, become a landmark in "preconceptional preparation". But maternal stress is also supposed to be bad for the unborn child. Pregnant women already have ample opportunities for self-blame: you forget to take folic acid (will the baby have spina bifida?); you can't forgo your nightly glass of wine (foetal alcohol syndrome?) or resist that slice of unpasteurised Brie (listeria?); you forget to wear gardening gloves (toxoplasmosis?) or don't eat organic (toxins). Now even gestating saints can beat themselves up about their habits before conception.

So, before clinical trials have been done it may be premature to call this, as Odent does, "the only logical strategy before conceiving". Currently, pre-conception advice is to take folic acid, stop smoking, cut down on drinking and eat healthily (cut saturated fats, eat more fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates). But if purging fat cells appeals, you have £190 to spare and can do it without developing an eating disorder, becoming underweight or depleting your fluid levels, vitamin and mineral levels, it could well rid your body of some toxins. Still, until we know more it may be wise to take a pinch of salt with your laxative tea.

• Information on the courses: Primal Health Research Centre, c/o 40 Cloudesdale Road, London SW17 8ES. Tel: 0171 485 0095 or 0181 675 7320.

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