MONDAY, Oct. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Pregnant women who eat a
healthy diet appear to reduce the risk of having a baby with a
major birth defect, such as spina bifida or a cleft lip or palette,
a new study suggests.
Neural tube birth defects -- including spina bifida and other
brain abnormalities -- are known to decrease when pregnant women
take supplements of folic acid, a type of vitamin B that also has
been added to a variety of foods. However, folic acid alone does
not prevent all birth defects, the researchers said.
"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.
Diet could also be related to reducing birth defects because a
combination of nutrients from a variety of foods may act together
in a beneficial way, Carmichael said. "It is also possible that a
healthy diet is a marker for other characteristics of a woman's
"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.
The report was published in the Oct. 3 online edition of the
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Using data from the U.S. National Birth Defects Prevention Study
for 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 defects, 2,475 with oral clefts, and compared these with 6,147
infants without birth defects.
They found that women with diets similar to the Mediterranean
Diet -- which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish
and light in fats and sugar -- or the Food Guide Pyramid of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture were at lower risk of having a baby
with a neural tube defect or oral cleft, compared to women who
reported eating less-healthy diets.
This finding remained even after adjusting for other factors
such as taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, the researchers
noted. "We found that diet was important whether a women took a
vitamin supplement or not," Carmichael said.
Most women who gave birth to an infant who did not have a birth
defect were white and had more than a high school education, the
researchers found. Among mothers in the survey, 19 percent smoked,
38 percent drank, 78 percent took folic acid supplements and 16
percent were obese.
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
There may be a number of right ways to eat, and some diets that
are not so good, he said. Generally, foods are better than
supplements except when there is a deficiency, he added.
Jacobs noted that foods are more complex than drugs that contain
only a single element and have been tested. "Food are not well
understood," he said.
"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.
Commenting on the study, Gail Harrison, a professor of public
health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and
spokeswoman for the March of Dimes, said, "I am not surprised that
there is an independent effect of total diet quality."
The finding underscores the importance of the mother's nutrition
both before and during pregnancy and the effect it can have on the
developing infant, she said. "A lot that goes on that determines
pregnancy outcome goes on very early in the pregnancy -- before
women even realize they're pregnant," she said.
Harrison noted that healthy eating needs to start even before
pregnancy. "Women who are capable of becoming pregnant really need
to pay attention to overall diet quality," she said.
For more information on a healthful diet, visit the
Department of Agriculture.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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