There's nothing like having a baby on board to make a woman change her lifestyle. In October, pregnant women got extra motivation: a study reported that chowing down on fruits, veggies and whole grains reduces their babies' risk of having neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida or a cleft lip. The Stanford University study was among the first to link diet to birth defects.
Researchers looked at the diets of 6,147 moms of babies without birth defects and 3,411 moms of babies born between 1997 and 2005 with NTDs or oral-facial clefts, observing how closely each adhered to two measures of diet quality: the Mediterranean diet and the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid. Both diets emphasize healthy eating that incorporates various food groups, but the food pyramid stresses the importance of specific nutrients.
They learned that women who ate healthiest munching lots of fruits, vegetables and grains and lower amounts of saturated fats and sweets were up to 50% less likely than women who ate low-quality diets to have a baby with anencephaly, a serious birth defect in which the brain doesn't fully form. The better-eating women were also up to 20% less likely to give birth to an infant with spina bifida and up to 30% less likely to have a baby with a cleft lip or cleft palate, according to the study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Folic-acid intake is emphasized as a way to prevent up to 40% of NTDs, but the findings were consistent regardless of whether a woman took prenatal supplements containing the B vitamin. "It's not to say that's not important, but we found the quality of diet matters," says Suzan Carmichael, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the pediatrics department at Stanford.