Oct 6 Women who eat a better diet leading up to
pregnancy are less likely to have babies with birth defects,
including brain and spine problems as well as cleft lip and
cleft palate, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers found that fewer babies were born with defects
such as neural tube defects when mothers-to-be more closely
followed either a Mediterranean diet -- high in beans, fruits,
fish and grains, and low in diary, meat and sweets -- or the
U.S. food guide pyramid guidelines for a healthy diet.
The findings were published in the Archives of Pediatrics
and Adolescent Medicine.
"A lot of birth defects, including neural tube defects,
occur very early in pregnancy, before women even know they're
pregnant," said Suzan Carmichael from Stanford University, who
worked on the study.
"These messages are important for women who are at any risk
of becoming pregnant."
The bottom line for women who are pregnant, or may get
pregnant, is eating a variety of foods, including a lot of
fruit, vegetables and grain, and taking a vitamin supplement
that contains folic acid, she added.
Low levels of folate during pregnancy were linked to brain
and spinal birth defects in the late 1990s, and pregnant women
are recommended to take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid and
Carmichael and her colleagues wondered if eating a healthy,
balanced diet could have the same protective effect as getting
extra vitamins and minerals through supplements. They used data
from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study to compare
about 3,400 women who had a baby with a neural tube defect or a
cleft lip or palate, and 6,100 women whose babies didn't have a
Each of those women completed a phone interview in the two
years after her baby was born.
Researchers asked the new mothers how frequently they had
eaten a range of foods, from beans to candy, in the few months
before they became pregnant. Then they calculated how closely
women had followed the so-called "Mediterranean diet" ir the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid.
After taking into account how much the women weighed,
whether they took vitamins and if they smoked and drank,
Carmichael and her colleagues found that those who more closely
followed either healthy diet were less likely to have babies
with any of the birth defects they studied.
In particular, women with a diet closely matching the USDA
Food Guide Pyramid were half as likely to have a baby missing
part of its brain and skull -- a birth defect called anencephaly
-- than women whose diet was farthest from those guidelines.
They were also 34 percent less likely to have a baby with cleft
lip and 26 percent less likely to have one with cleft palate.
Epidemiologist David Jacobs, from the University of
Minnesota in Minneapolis, said the findings suggest that a
healthy diet can lower the risk of birth defects in the same way
that has happened through folic acid fortification.
"If you are a woman about to become pregnant or think you
might become pregnant, it's all the more reason for you to take
care of yourself and seek out better foods," Jacobs, who wrote a
commentary accompanying the study, told Reuters Health.
Luz de Regil, from the World Health Organization's
Department of Nutrition of Health and Development in Geneva,
cautioned that with the current evidence about the benefits of
prenatal supplements, a good diet isn't enough.
On a global scale, especially in places where diets aren't
as good, folic acid is still a priority for preventing birth
defects, she told Reuters Health.
"If a woman is trying to get pregnant, a good diet should be
a complement to the use of folic acid supplementation, not a
substitute," said de Regil, who wasn't involved in the study.
"Having a baby (and) a good pregnancy is a result of many
(Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health,
editing by Elaine Lies)