Eating a healthy diet while pregnant is not only good for you, it may help prevent birth defects in your baby a new study suggests.
When you’re pregnant, what you eat and drink is the main source of nourishment for your baby. What you consume and the health of your baby are directly linked. That’s one of the reasons that doctors say that no amount of alcohol should be consumed during pregnancy.
Studies have shown that folic acid decreases the risks of spina bifida and other brain abnormalities. However, researchers have said that folic acid alone does not prevent all birth defects.
“There may be certain qualities of foods that have benefits that aren’t captured by examining just one nutrient at a time,” said lead researcher Suzan L. Carmichael, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University.
Carmichael says that it’s the variety of healthy foods that could be related to reducing birth defects because the nutrients are working together. Moms-to-be who keep to a healthy diet, may also live a healthier lifestyle.
“It is also possible that a healthy diet is a marker for other characteristics of a woman’s lifestyle. Our study supports recommendations that have been made for many years for pregnant women,” she said. “Eat a variety of foods, include a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains in your diet and take a vitamin supplement that contains folic acid.”
Although folic acid can prevent up to 40 percent of neural tube defects, it’s not the whole story, Carmichael said. “Babies are still born with neural tube defects, so we need to keep looking for answers,” she said.
Researchers used data from the U.S. National Birth Defects Prevention Study from October 1997 through December 2005. Carmichael’s team looked at the role diet plays in birth defects. During telephone interviews, mothers described their diet.
The researchers looked at cases of 936 infants born with neural tube birth defects, 2,475 with oral clefts, and compared these with 6,147 infants without birth defects.
The results showed that pregnant women with diets similar to the Mediterranean Diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, were at a lower risk of having a baby with birth defects than women who ate a less-healthy diet.
Also, diet seems to have more impact than just using supplements.
“We found that diet was important whether a women took a vitamin supplement or not,” Carmichael said.
David R. Jacobs, Jr., the Mayo Professor of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and co-author of an accompanying journal editorial, said, “We have confused the constituents of food with food itself. Food is a complex mixture.”
“There are some better ways to eat and supplements are probably not the right answer — we should eat food,” Jacobs said. One should not eat too much and eat mostly plants, he added.
Other findings in the study were that most of the women who gave birth to an infant who did not have birth defects were white and had more than a high school education. Among mothers that participated in the survey, 19% smoked, 38% drank, 78% took folic acid supplements and 16% were obese.
The study points out what many people already know. Healthier food choices make for a healthier body. For mothers-to-be, eating a healthier diet, means giving your baby a jump-start on a healthier life.
The report was published in the Oct. 3 online edition of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.