World Birth Defects Day: Know how poor maternal nutrition is linked to birth defects

The exact cause of birth defects is not known, but can poor maternal nutrition cause it? Let’s understand the link between the two on the day of World Birth Defect Day.
Eat healthy and keep your growing baby healthy! Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Dr Shilpa Aroskar Updated: 17 Oct 2023, 06:35 pm IST

World Birth Defects Day is observed every year on the March 3rd. This day is dedicated to raising awareness about birth defects, which affect millions of babies worldwide every year. Birth defects are physical or functional abnormalities that occur in the baby’s body during the first three months of pregnancy. They can range from minor conditions, such as a cleft lip, to more severe conditions, such as heart defects, spina bifida, and Down syndrome.

Although the exact cause of birth defects is often unknown, there is increasing evidence to suggest that maternal nutrition plays a significant role in the development of these conditions. So, let us explore the potential link between maternal diet and birth defects and highlight the importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy.

Importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy

It is essential to understand that a healthy diet is crucial during pregnancy, not just for the mother’s health but also for the baby’s development. The food that a pregnant woman eats provides vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients to her and the growing fetus, and a lack of certain nutrients can lead to birth defects.

Diet matters when you’re pregnant. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Impact of poor maternal nutrition on a fetus

Research has shown that a lack of folic acid during pregnancy can increase the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Folic acid is a vitamin B that is found in many foods, including leafy greens, beans, and citrus fruits. However, many women do not get enough folic acid from their diet alone, which is why it is recommended that pregnant women take a daily folic acid supplement.

Similarly, a lack of iodine during pregnancy can lead to thyroid dysfunction and congenital hypothyroidism, a condition that affects the baby’s brain development. Foods such as seaweed, fish, and dairy products contain iodine. However, the amount of iodine in food can vary greatly depending on the soil and water quality in the area where it was grown or raised. Therefore, pregnant women are often advised to take an iodine supplement to ensure they are getting enough of this vital nutrient.

Also read: A nutritionist busts 8 myths about foods to eat and avoid during pregnancy

Effect of over nutrition during pregnancy

Not only is lack of nutrients a problem, but over-nutrition is another concern! Excessive intake of certain nutrients can also be harmful to the baby’s development. For example, high levels of vitamin A during pregnancy can lead to birth defects in the baby’s heart, brain, and spinal cord. Vitamin A is found in many foods, including liver, dairy products, and certain fish. Therefore, pregnant women are advised to limit their intake of foods high in vitamin A and avoid taking vitamin A supplements unless prescribed by a doctor.

Consult with a doctor about what you should eat and avoid during pregnancy. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

In addition to specific nutrients, the overall quality of a woman’s diet during pregnancy can also impact the risk of birth defects. A diet high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats can increase the risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension, and other complications that can affect the baby’s development. On the other hand, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can provide the nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy and reduce the risk of birth defects.

Also read: Avoid neural tube defects during pregnancy with these expert tips

Causes of birth defects

While the link between maternal diet and birth defects is becoming increasingly apparent, it is essential to note that many factors can contribute to the development of birth defects. Genetics, exposure to toxins, infections, and other environmental factors can all play a role. Therefore, it is essential to take a holistic approach to pregnancy health and ensure that all aspects of maternal and fetal health are addressed.

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Taking good pregnancy care can reduce the risk of birth defects. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Medical care during pregnancy is important

The link between maternal diet and birth defects is a complex issue that requires attention and care from healthcare professionals and expectant mothers alike. While a healthy diet is essential, it is just one aspect of ensuring a healthy pregnancy and reducing the risk of birth defects. It is also crucial to receive comprehensive prenatal care from a multidisciplinary hospital that has a healthcare team, including obstetricians, midwives, nutritionists, and genetic counselors, to monitor the health of the mother and baby, identify potential risk factors for birth defects, and provide appropriate interventions and support. Choosing a hospital with a dedicated team of healthcare professionals can make all the difference in ensuring the best possible outcomes for both the mother and the baby.

Dr Shilpa Aroskar

Dr Shilpa Aroskar, Consultant, Paediatrics and Neonatology at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Navi Mumbai   ...Read More

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