A Healthy Diet May Radically Reduce Risk of Birth Defects

A Healthy Diet May Radically Reduce Risk of Birth Defects

Story at-a-glance -

  • Women who eat a healthy diet in the year prior to pregnancy have a significantly lower risk of having a baby with birth defects
  • Mom’s healthy diet can lower her baby’s risk of cleft lip, cleft palate, and certain neural tube defects
  • Ideally, women should focus on proper nutrition, including whole fresh foods, animal-based omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, metafolate and probiotics, before pregnancy, as well as during and beyond

By Dr. Mercola

There is rarely a more nutritionally demanding time during a woman's life than pregnancy (and later breastfeeding), when your intake of nutrients from foods and supplements are needed not only to keep your body running but also to nourish and support your rapidly growing baby.

Proper nutrition is crucial at all stages of fetal development, and if mom doesn't eat right, her growing baby won't either.

Wholesome Diet Before Pregnancy Reduces Risk of Birth Defects

If you're a woman in your childbearing years and you're planning to have children any time soon, it's imperative that you start eating healthy now.

New research shows that women who ate a vegetable-rich diet during the year before pregnancy had a significantly lower risk of having a baby with certain birth defects as women who ate an unhealthy high-sugar diet. Specifically, compared to those who ate unhealthy, women who ate healthy experienced:

  • One-half lower risk of anencephaly, a neural-tube defect that interferes with brain development and often results in miscarriage
  • Up to a one-third lower risk of cleft lip
  • One-quarter lower risk of cleft palate
  • One-fifth lower risk of spina bifida, another neural-tube defect

Unfortunately, the researchers lumped saturated fats in with "unhealthy fat," when they are actually crucial for pregnant women (and everyone, for that matter), and incorrectly labeled whole grains as healthy, when the majority of Americans need to limit them.

So I believe their results may have been skewed and may have shown an even greater benefit if a true healthy diet had been defined (as an aside, the commonly referred to "Mediterranean diet" vilifies saturated fats, but a true traditional Mediterranean diet was by no means low in saturated fats)… nonetheless, you can still get the gist of the importance of eating whole foods vs. unhealthy, high-sugar alternatives.

Additionally many of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet may actually be related to the soil of the Mediterranean, which is very high in sulfur so the foods grown there provide much higher sulfur levels. So people eating similar foods not grown in sulfur-rich soils may not obtain the same benefits.

It is also important to note that the benefits occurred among women who ate healthy in the year prior to pregnancy, as it takes time for your body, and your developing baby, to be able to reap all the benefits of healthy nutrition. The later in the pregnancy these changes are implemented the less the benefit. Ideally one should be eating healthy foods prior to conception.

If you wait to start eating healthy until you are already pregnant, the fetus will miss out on important nutrients in the first crucial weeks of development, when the foundations of your baby's organs are forming. Many are not aware of this, but it is between 17 and 56 days of pregnancy that the embryo is most vulnerable and susceptible to influences that may interfere with its normal development.

So not only is it crucial to avoid exposures to pesticides and other chemicals during this time, but it's also very important that your nutritional requirements are fully met from the moment conception takes place.

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What Nutrients are Crucial for Pregnant Women (and Women of Childbearing Age)?

Healthy nutrition cannot be limited to a handful of nutrients; it can only be achieved by eating a variety of whole, high-quality foods daily. I cannot stress this enough, as if you seek to make up for a diet of processed foods by taking a multi-vitamin or eating a salad here and there, you are deceiving yourself and missing the point -- and the benefits.

For a succinct and easy-to-follow overview of the types of foods and nutrients that will support a healthy pregnancy, read my nutrition plan. Ideally, by the time you enter pregnancy you will already be in the Intermediate or Advanced stage, but even the Beginner stage is far better that the typical American diet.

As you'll see, it is focused on minimizing processed foods while increasing your intake of vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality sources of protein, all of which are ideal for nurturing a growing fetus. Some of the highlights you'll want to be sure to include are:

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B complex vitamins and is naturally present in foods that come from animals, including meat, fish, eggs, milk and milk products. B12 is critical for normal neurological development and maintenance, and shortages can result in permanent birth defects. Note: If you eat a vegan diet, you are likely to be dangerously deficient in vitamin B12.

Folic Acid in the form of Metafolate

Another B complex vitamin (vitamin B9), folic acid deficiency at the time of conception is known to increase the risk for birth defects such as spina bifida. Many women are aware of this and take folic acid supplements in their prenatal vitamins, but many are not aware that in order for folic acid to perform its crucial duties in your body, and for your fetus, it must first be activated into the biologically active form – L-5-MTHF.

This is the form that's most usable by your body and the form that's able to cross the blood-brain barrier to carry out important brain functions. Nearly half of the population has difficulty converting folic acid to the bioactive 5-MTHF form because of a genetic reduction in enzyme activity, so it's important to look for metafolate or metafolin in your multi-vitamin instead of folic acid. Be sure to read the label closely, as many companies don't use the bioactive form because it is too expensive and about 10 times more costly.

Of course even better than a supplement would be a wide variety of healthy, fresh, organically grown vegetables, which will supply not only folic acid in the correct form but all the other important accessory micronutrients.

Animal-based Omega-3 Fats

Most women have major deficiencies of animal-based omega-3 fat like EPA and DHA, which is unfortunate because fetal cells cannot form omega-3 fats, meaning a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fatty acids from mother's diet. A mother's dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA status of the developing fetus.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is so essential to a child's development that if a mother and infant are deficient in it, the child's nervous system and immune system may never fully develop, and it can cause a lifetime of unexplained emotional, learning, and immune system disorders. DHA makes up 15 percent to 20 percent of the cerebral cortex and 30 percent to 60 percent of the retina so it is absolutely necessary for normal development of the fetus in utero, and as a baby post birth.

Omega-3s are simply powerhouse nutrients to ensure that your baby will develop properly and reach its highest potential. These nutrients help to maximize the intelligence of your child, and protect your baby from brain injuries such as autism, pervasive developmental delay, and ADHD.

Studies have shown that sufficient levels of omega-3 fats optimize brain growth in children, especially during the third trimester. But because the fetus depends on the mother's DHA sources, the constant drain on a mother's DHA reserves can easily lead to a deficiency and some researchers believe that preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure) and postpartum depression could be linked to a DHA deficiency. The DHA in animal-based omega-3 fats will also help to prevent the vast majority of premature deliveries.

In my view, krill oil is your best option when it comes to obtaining important high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats. It contains EPA and DHA in a double-chain phospholipid structure that makes it far more absorbable than the omega-3s in fish oil. Krill is a clean, sustainable resource and also does not present the contamination risks that eating fish does. I do not advise pregnant women to eat fish, even though it contains omega-3, most sources are contaminated with mercury and other toxins.

It is important to note that plant-based omega 3 fats (such as flaxseeds) do not provide the same benefits as animal-based, because most of us can't convert the ALA in plant-based fats to the appropriate amount of DHA that is required. You can consume plant-based omega-3s additionally, I just don't recommend making them your sole source.

Fermented Foods and/or Probiotics

Nearly everyone can benefit from optimizing the balance of good vs. bad bacteria in their gut using probiotics, but if you are pregnant or planning to be, this is of utmost importance to you and your new baby. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid sugar and processed foods and to include fermented foods in your diet.

Additionally, taking a high-quality probiotic may help you to regain your figure after pregnancy, but the benefits go well beyond this. Research shows giving pregnant women and newborns doses of good bacteria can:

The best way to ensure optimal gut flora is to regularly consume traditionally fermented foods, which are naturally rich in probiotics. This includes Lassi, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented veggies, natto, kim chee and tempeh. A high-quality probiotic supplement is also an option, especially if you don't eat many fermented foods.

Vitamin D

I've included vitamin D here even though your main source of it should be from the sun, not from food. Along with reducing your risk of premature birth, studies have found that vitamin D may protect against a number of birth defects and autism, as well as pregnancy complications like high blood pressure. It is absolutely imperative that pregnant women maintain a blood level of between 50 and 70 ng/ml of 25 hydroxy D, and I am hopeful that in the not too distant future it will be mandatory for pregnant women to receive regular vitamin D blood test levels.

So please watch my free one-hour vitamin D lecture to find out how to get your levels optimized. Ideally you should get it by having UVB exposure on at least half of your skin. You can do this for free in the summer with sunlight but the rest of the year for many, the next best option is a safe tanning bed. Your other option would be oral vitamin D3.

If you are unable to have sunshine or a safe tanning bed exposure than it will be VERY important to take oral vitamin D3. The average adult dose is 8000 units. Your prenatal supplement will likely only contain 1000 units of vitamin D3 or less, so make sure you get the correct dose and to check your blood level as many people need far more than 8000 units a day, and some may require less. Also please understand that you will get between 10,000 and 40,000 units of vitamin D every day you properly suntan.

An Important (and All-Too-Common) Food to Avoid …

Just as it's imperative to include the right foods in your diet, it's also crucial to limit those that can be harmful. Pregnant women are often warned about the "dangers" of eating undercooked meat and drinking unpasteurized milk, even though those risks are largely unfounded as long as the foods come from clean, safe, high-quality sources (i.e. NOT CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).

What you will rarely hear, however -- but that should be explained to every pregnant woman at her first midwife or OB visit -- is that there is powerful emerging evidence of the danger of excess fructose consumption. It will increase insulin and leptin resistance and also radically increase total inflammation in your body, which can cause pregnancy complications.

So please be sure and count your fructose grams (it's often hidden in processed foods) and keep them below 25 grams per day. Fructose is found not only in fresh fruit but also, and more importantly, in soda, cookies, candy, crackers, salad dressing, bread, and countless other processed foods.

Fortifying your diet with healthy fresh foods, and avoiding junk food and fast foods, is truly one of the best gifts you can give to your child. The more high-quality foods you consume, the better health start your baby will receive.