Despite giving in to the occasional nutritionally dubious cravings, most pregnant mums tend to be more mindful of what they eat during the gestational nine months. But new research indicates that a healthy diet needs to happen well before conception, to lower chances of congenital heart defects.
A study recently published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood has drawn a link between maternal diet the year before conception and a decreased risk of heart abnormalities in newborns.
The team of researchers analysed the pre-pregnancy eating habits of nearly 20,000 women participating in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. Out of the subject pool, about half had healthy babies and half had newborns with major heart abnormalities, all between 1997 and 2009. Those who ate better in the 12 months before conceiving (in the top 25% of diet quality) were about 37% less likely to give birth to a baby with tetralogy of fallot — an abnormality involving a hole in the heart and a narrowing of the main vessel that goes to the lungs, which can lead to conditions such as ‘blue baby ‘— and 23% less likely to have a child with atrial septal defects — an abnormality involving a hole in the wall between the left and right sides of the heart.
Study author Lorenzo Botto, M.D., a professor of paediatrics and a medical geneticist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, emphasises the value of the findings: “Sure, prenatal health — during the pregnancy — is very important, but to prevent birth defects, which occur in the very first weeks after conception — when many women do not even know they are pregnant — it is important to have stable optimal health before conception.” This is especially crucial considering the fetal heart starts beating around four weeks after conception.
So what should we be plating up to give our future children the best start? The scientists calculated nutritional measures using both the Mediterranean diet and the Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, along with iron and folic acid-rich foods and – sorry – very few sweets.
FitPregnancy.com points out that this type of observational study doesn’t make a cause and effect distinction, but rather draws associations between diet and birth outcomes. Still, it’s never a bad thing to do everything you can to optimise your health prior to one of the biggest physical challenges your body will face.