Women who eat healthy during pregnancy are less apt to have children with birth defects, according to new research published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Specific birth defects mentioned in the study include neural tube defects and clefts.

Pregnant women and women who want to conceive are educated on the importance of folic acid, but this single element of food is part of a much more complex nutritional profile. More than 10,000 women were interviewed for the study. Women were asked questions via a phone interview. Participants were asked about food and dietary intake during pregnancy. Of the study group, just less than 2,500 clefts and 950 neural tube defects were reported.

What researchers found was a connection between pre-pregnancy diet and a reduction in some birth defects. Women who practiced healthy eating habits for at least one year before becoming pregnant were less likely to have children with neural tube defects or clefts. When researchers took maternal supplementation out of the equation, the decreased risk still remained.

Researchers now know that pre-pregnancy diet is just as important as folic acid and prenatal vitamin intake during pregnancy. Any woman of child-bearing age is encouraged to adopt a healthy diet rich in complex carbohydrates, whole grains, and natural foods. Processed foods tend to be high fat and high sodium, thus they should not be a part of a healthy pre-pregnancy diet.

Despite the clear connection between pre-pregnancy and pregnancy diet and reduced birth defect risk, women are still encouraged to take prenatal vitamins and eat folic acid-rich foods throughout pregnancy. More research is needed to determine if diet alone can reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

The diets of study participants were graded based on the United States Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid Diet Quality Index and Mediterranean Diet Score.

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Source: Suzan L. Carmichael, Ph.D., David R. Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., Gail Harrison, Ph.D. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 3 October, 2011.