A healthy diet during pregnancy reduces birth defect risks

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 7th October 2011

A new study from Stanford University’s School of Medicine, in the US, has found perinatal and pregnant women who consume a healthy diet stand a lesser risk of having a baby with birth defects.

In the study, published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, women who ate a healthier diet before and during pregnancy gave birth to fewer infants with malformations of the brain and spinal cord, or orofacial clefts, such as cleft lip and cleft palate.

The study’s author Suzan Carmichael said, “Prior research on diet and birth defects has generally addressed one nutrient at a time. This study showed for the first time that the overall quality of the diet, and not just a single nutrient, has an impact on the risk of birth defects.”

The study asked women from ten US States to answer detailed questions about their eating habits immediately before and during pregnancy. The subjects included 3,824 women whose fetuses or infants had a neural tube defect or a cleft lip or palate, and 6,807 women with healthy infants.

The women were ranked by diet score and then divided into four comparison groups. The women with the highest scores were found to be less likely than those with the lowest scores to have a pregnancy affected by anencephaly, depending on which dietary scoring system was used. Similarly, the women with the highest diet quality scores had approximately 24 to 34 percent protection against giving birth to a child with cleft lip. Higher diet quality was also protective against the other two birth defects that were studied — spina bifida and cleft palate — but results were not quite as strong.

Ms Carmichael said, “We may be capturing qualities of these foods that are beneficial to health but haven’t been measured in isolation. The combinations of nutrients in such foods may also be important. In our bodies, nutrients interact. They don’t just act in isolation; they depend on each other. For instance, eating fruits and vegetables that deliver several nutrients simultaneously may have greater benefits than consuming more of a single nutrient.”

The researchers plan to extend their findings with future studies that examine the relationship between diet quality and other pregnancy outcomes, including other types of birth defects. They also hope to gain a better understanding of how a healthy diet exerts its protective effect.