by Julie Snyder
A new study from Stanford University suggests that women run a lower risk of having babies with certain birth defects if their diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains during their childbearing years.
Mediterranean-style diets -- which include plenty of folate, iron and calcium, were associated with an overall decrease in birth defects, 1/3 lowered risk of cleft lip and a 1/5 lower risk of spina bifida.
Researcher scored diet qualities on two indexes; one modeled on U.S. Department of Agricuture dietary guidelines and another based on the Mediterranean diet.
Both indexes consider fruits, vegetables, whole grains and good fats to be healthy; saturated fats and sweets to be unhealthy.
Across the board, women with the healthiest diets were less likely to have had children with birth defects compared to women with the poorest-qualithy diets. Scoring high on either index reduced your baby's risk of birth defects.
Most research on diet and birth defects has focused on single nutrients. Carmichael and her colleagues took at different approch by looking at overall diet quality (a method common in cancer and heart-disease research).
The study authors and other experts strongly recommend that pregnant women continue taking folic-acid supplements. But the study does raise the general question of whether "eating the right foods" can provide health benefits that supplements do not, says David R. Jacobs Jr., Ph.D., a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.
"We have evolved to eat food. We have not evolved to eat supplements," says Jacobs, who cowrote an editorial accompanying the study. "If you would like to be healthy, the better way to do that is by getting what you need from food rather than isolated compounds."
About the study:
Carmicheal, S, Shaw, G, Yang, W, Overall quality of pregnant woman's diet affects risk for two types of birth defects, "Archives in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine" October 3, 2011. The study compared the diets of 3824 mothers whose children experienced birth defecgts with those of 6807 mothers of healthy children.