When you become pregnant, the last thing you want to think about is birth defects or hindered development for your newborn baby. You probably take many precautions to follow a healthy diet and to avoid consuming anything you think might hinder your baby’s growth and overall well-being. Unfortunately, babies can still be born with serious defects, and sometimes these defects are completely out of our control. In some cases, the minerals and compounds we consume lead to problems, but we simply cannot avoid them. One recent study suggests that women who follow a vegetarian diet during pregnancy might be more at risk for having male newborns with a genital defect called hypospadias.

Hypospadias is a birth defect that occurs in up for four out of every 1,000 newborn boys. These boys are born with a urethra that ends at the underside of the penis instead of at the tip. Boys born with this condition suffer an abnormal urine stream, a malformed foreskin and the need to sit down to urinate. The exact cause for the condition is unknown, but the recent study exploring it suggests that a maternal vegetarian diet might have something to do with it.

However, the results of the study do not address the lack of meat in the diet of pregnant women who are vegetarians. Instead, the results suggest that vegetarians inherently eat more vegetables, and are therefore exposed to more phytoestrogens. These hormones might affect the development of the male reproductive system, since they are essentially the dietary version of the female sex hormone that naturally occurs in the body.

If you do have a baby boy with hypospadias, there are surgical procedures that he can undergo to put his urethra in the correct place. If you think you might want him to have surgery in the future to correct the issue, do not circumcise him, as his foreskin will serve as a key element to the surgical procedure.

Since the odds of having a boy with hypospadias are small, you should not alter your diet just to avoid the condition. Even omnivores who eat a lot of vegetables are at risk for having a baby boy with the condition. If you are a vegetarian before you became pregnant for health reasons, you can continue your diet, but make sure you speak with your doctor about getting the proper nutrients to have a healthy pregnancy.

Source: K. North et al: A Maternal Vegetarian Diet in Pregnancy is Associated with Hypospadias. BJU International Volume 85 Issue 1 pp. 107-113 January 2008