According to a new study, not only are you what you eat, so is your unborn child. Research published online Aug. 24 in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (Fetal & Neonatal Edition) found that mothers who had a healthy diet before pregnancy were less likely to have a baby born with a heart abnormality.
“The more you went up in diet quality, the less the risk for severe congenital heart anomalies,” lead author Lorenzo Botto, MD, a professor of pediatrics and a medical geneticist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, told HealthDay.
Congenital heart defects affect about 1 percent of newborns in the United States, according to a journal news release. About one in four of the affected children will die in infancy as a result. Because previous studies have suggested that better diet quality may lower the rate of heart abnormalities at birth, Botto and his colleagues sought to determine diet’s role as a preventive measure.
For the study, the researchers looked at women who had participated in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study between 1997 and 2009. Of the approximately 1900 women in the study, half had given birth to healthy babies and half had birthed babies with major heart abnormalities. All the mothers were questioned about their diets prior to becoming pregnant.
Diet quality was assessed using the Mediterranean Diet and the Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy (DQI-P). The Mediterranean Diet consists of legumes, grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables and fish, while discouraging the consumption of dairy, meat and sweets. DQI-P urges consuming grains, vegetables, fruits, folate, iron and calcium and avoiding fats and sweets.
Study findings showed that women who scored in the top 25 percent for a DQI-P healthy diet had a significantly lower risk of having a baby with certain heart defects than those in the bottom 25 percent.
Women who scored high on both diet measurements were at a 37 percent lower risk of having a baby with tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect that can lead to dangerously low levels of oxygen in the blood going to the rest of the body. A better diet was also associated with a 23 percent lower risk of an atrial septal defect – a hole in the wall of the septum, which divides the chambers of the heart.
Given that birth defects happen in the very first weeks after conception, the researchers see their findings as an important indication that women need to eat a healthy diet before they conceive. If a woman waits to begin eating healthy food after she is pregnant, it could be too late, advised the research team.
And a logical step to eating healthy pre-pregnancy, say healthcare experts, is family planning.
“It would be really great if all women of childbearing age, for their own good and their future child’s benefit, could be on an optimal diet,” Edward McCabe, MD, PhD, vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes, told HealthDay. “If not, then plan and get on a diet for a year before you conceive,” he advised.