How Pregnant Women’s Diets Can Increase Birth Defects Risk

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Pregnancy Diets are Important… Duh!

It’s a universal fact that a pregnant woman’s diet is essential to the health of her unborn baby, but did you know that the quality of her diet also matters? A poor quality diet can increase her risk of birth defects, such as neutral tube defects and orofacial clefts (like cleft lip and cleft palate).

birth defects prevention

For years, researchers have focused on the effect of specific nutrients on fetal development. For example, numerous studies have proven that folic acid protects against neutral tube defects, which are brain and spinal cord birth defects. And in 1998, the U.S. food supply was fortified with folic acid (also called folate). Neutral tube defects didn’t disappear completely however, so researchers began to look at other ways that a pregnant woman’s diet can increase her baby’s risk of birth defects, such as the quality of her overall diet.

A 2011 Study…

In a 2011 study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers examined the diet of over 3,800 women whose fetuses or infants had a neutral tube defect, or an orofacial cleft. The researchers scored the quality of the pregnant woman’s diet by using the traditional Mediterranean diet (which is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, whole grains, olive oil and other heart healthy fat sources) as well as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which emphasizes lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat, fiber-rich foods. They found that the overall quality of a pregnant woman’s diet – and not just a single nutrient  – plays a role in reducing her risk of these types of birth defects.

Pregnant women with the healthiest diets were 36 to 51 percent less likely to have a baby affected with anencephaly (the most common neutral tube defect), and they were 24 to 34 percent less likely to give birth to a baby with a cleft lip. A higher quality diet also protected against spina bifida and cleft palate, but the results weren’t as strong.

Diet is the Best way to Prevent Birth Defects

This new study proves that healthy eating is the best way to go against birth defects. When you eat a healthy diet that is varied in the different food groups, your baby receives a good supply of nutrients to develop and grow healthy. Plus, eating the right types of food allows you to ingest different nutrient combinations. For example, eating fruits and vegetables every day delivers several vitamins and nutrients simultaneously. The interaction between these nutrients has a greater benefit to the pregnant woman’s diet than just one lone nutrient by itself. Another reason why you should eat healthy: you don’t have the appetite to eat unhealthy foods. Avoiding junk food (that have empty calories, and no nutritional value) may help reduce the risk of birth defects.

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