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Eat Right, Have a Healthier Baby

March of Dimes reports that good diet matters before and after conception

MONDAY, Feb. 25, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're thinking of getting pregnant, eating healthy foods and controlling your weight before and after you conceive could dramatically increase your chances for having a healthier baby.

That's the advice from the March of Dimes -- the result of more than two years of research by a task force dedicated to finding the most effective ways to cut the risk of premature births and birth defects. The report was released today.

"We tried to find the most practical solutions for some of the most devastating pregnancy and birth problems, not only in the United States, but around the world," says Dr. Richard Deckelbaum, chairman of the task force.

In fact, Deckelbaum envisions a kind of three-step ladder to healthier babies, with the first rung a recognition of what he calls the "life-cycle" approach to pregnancy.

"This means recognizing that what you do with one period of your life affects what happens at other stages of your life, or your baby's life," Deckelbaum says. Women should remember their behavior before they get pregnant really makes a difference in the health of any baby they conceive, he explains.

This includes not only paying attention to factors commonly associated with pregnancy problems, such as smoking and alcohol, but also factors we tend to overlook, such as diet and exercise.

That leads to the second rung of Decklebaum's ladder -- the need for women to control their weight, particularly before they get pregnant.

"Being overweight or obese before you get pregnant has very damaging effects on pregnancy outcome, and very damaging effects on the infant," Deckelbaum says.

For the mother, there's a dramatically increased risk for gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and a life-threatening complication known as preeclampsia. There's also an increased risk for both C-section delivery and hospitalization during pregnancy.

For the developing baby, there's an equally dramatic increase in the risk of premature birth, as well as some very serious birth defects, including neural tube defects -- a deadly problem that involves the baby's brain and spine.

According to at least one study, by going from normal weight to overweight or obese, a woman can increase her baby's rate of neural tube defects by as much as 30 percent. This is independent of meeting folic acid requirements, the nutrient that decreases the risk of neural tube defects, he adds.

"If you're obese before you get pregnant, with a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or more, there is a 50 percent increase in the risk of major [birth] defects," Deckelbaum says, including those that affect the heart, intestines and blood vessels.

For mothers who are too thin before or during pregnancy, Deckelbaum says there is also increased risk of premature delivery and low birth-weight babies.

"Small babies may not develop to be as smart -- and there is a lot of evidence that babies who are small, [and less] than their expected weight, grow up to be adults [with] higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, lipid problems and more Type II diabetes," Deckelbaum says.

The third and final rung on the ladder tells women to rely less on nutritional supplements, and more on natural foods, to meet their nutritional requirements both before and after pregnancy.

Whenever, possible, women should eat a healthy diet, turning to fortified foods and supplements only when they can't meet their requirements through an eating plan.

With the exception of folic acid supplements, which have been shown to pay an enormous role in reducing the risk of neural tube defects, Deckelbaum says eating better can mean a healthier pregnancy.

"Remember, we're not saying eat more foods, we're saying eat better quality foods," Deckelbaum stresses.

The March of Dimes Task Force on Nutrition and Optimal Human Development includes 29 nutrition scientists, administrators and policy makers from a variety of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

What To Do

For even more information on having a healthy baby, visit The March of Dimes.

To learn more about pre-conception health and nutrition, visit Stork Net.

SOURCES: Interview with Richard Deckelbaum, M.D, professor, nutrition, Columbia University, New York City, and chairman, March of Dimes Task Force on Nutrition and Optimal Human Development; Feb. 25, 2002, Nutrition Today Matters Tomorrow: A Report from the March of Dimes Task Force on Nutrition and Optimal Human Development
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