Many women are failing to consume adequate nutrition in the weeks and months before becoming pregnant, and minorities often fare much worse than white women, says a new study.
The study casts a warning call for women who are seeking to become pregnant because poor nutrition can lead to birth risks in both the women and child. Risks include preterm birth, reduced fetal growth, obesity in the mother, and the dangerous condition preeclampsia, according to the study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
However, researchers believe that enhanced awareness can turn things around. “Unlike many other pregnancy and birth risk factors, diet is something we can improve,” said lead author Dr. Lisa Bodnar, associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh.
“While attention should be given to improving nutritional counseling at doctor appointments, overarching societal and policy changes that help women to make healthy dietary choices may be more effective and efficient,” added Bodnar.
The researchers assessed the health and nutrition data of more than 7,500 women who took part in a pregnancy outcomes study, which tracked women at eight medical centers across the U.S. The women were between six and 14 weeks pregnant when they began the study, and researchers assessed dietary habits in the three months before and after pregnancy.
Overall, researchers found that minority women were more likely to report poor nutrition during preconception — just 14 percent of Hispanic women and less than 5 percent of black women consumed diets that ranked among the healthiest nutrition groups. Nearly half, or 44 percent, of black women had a score in the lowest nutrition group.
The researchers compared dietary habits to the Healthy Eating Index-2010, which uses a 12-point scale to rank the adequacy of a person’s nutrition intake. The researchers believe their study highlights nutritional deficiencies that are prevalent among populations other than pregnant women.
“Our findings mirror national nutrition and dietary trends,” noted Bodnar. “The diet quality gap among non-pregnant people is thought to be a consequence of many factors, including access to and price of healthy foods, knowledge of a healthy diet, and pressing needs that may take priority over a healthy diet.”
The study authors found that nutrition scores rose in accordance with a person’s education level, with the best scores generally among those with a college degree.
More than one-third of the calories that the women consumed came from “empty calories,” note the researchers. Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages were major sources of caloric intake for women who reported poor nutrition scores.
“Diet quality is suboptimal around conception, particularly among women who are non-Hispanic black, Hispanic, or who had less than a college degree. Diet quality could be improved by substituting intakes of refined grains and foods empty in calories with vegetables, peas and beans (legumes), seafood and whole grains,” suggest the researchers.
Adding more vegetables to your diet is good for your baby, and other research has found it can reduce stress, too.
Bodnar believes the study is a significant first step in addressing the challenges of malnutrition among some pregnant women, but she calls for additional investigation into the critical topic.
“Future research needs to determine if improving pre-pregnancy diet leads to better pregnancy and birth outcomes. If so, then we need to explore and test ways to improve the diets for everyone, particularly women likely to become pregnant,” said Bodnar.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.