Pregnancy and diet - what's the deal?

Nutrition team

Women who become pregnant while they are dieting could be risking the health of their unborn child, a new study reveals. The modern fashion for supermodel figures over child-bearing hips could be causing thousands of pre-term births every year and exposing babies to adverse health effects that can last a lifetime.

The first three months of pregnancy is a time of rapid growth and development and the growing foetus is very vulnerable at this stage, being at greater risk of cerebral palsy, brain damage and respiratory difficulties. Therefore the time of greatest nutritional importance is possibly before a woman even suspects she is pregnant, and certainly before the first antenatal appointment when most women receive nutrition advice.

The researchers of this study are particularly concerned about women who deliberately diet before trying for a baby, as a way of avoiding difficult weight loss after the birth. Professor Challis, of the University of Toronto where the research was carried out, commented that it looks as if 30 to 40 per cent of women diet in anticipation of gaining weight. It has revealed that new mothers who lose even modest amounts of weight before conceiving are likely to go into labour too early, putting their infants’ health at risk.

Many women change their behaviour once they know they are pregnant, but the damage could have been done by then. Women who are dieting and fall pregnant by accident would also be affected. Extremely poor eating habits can lead to a diminished food intake but very low calorie diets of less than 1000 calories per day are perhaps the greatest hazard. Other British research has shown that up to 40 per cent of women of child-bearing age do not follow a balanced diet and that most pregnant teenagers have an inadequate diet. A nutritional analysis showed deficiencies in vitamin A, magnesium, folic acid, zinc, iron and calcium.

Overweight women who are planning a pregnancy are encouraged to lose weight. Being overweight can interfere with fertility, delaying or preventing conception. Overweight mothers are also at a higher risk of complications such as pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) and gestational diabetes (pregnancy-induced diabetes). Ultra-sound test can be less accurate and overweight women are more likely to go through a prolonged labour, foetal distress, and Caesarean section.

It is thus preferable for weight to be reduced and maintained well in advance of conception in order to lessen the likelihood of nutritional inadequacy. If weight loss is not accomplished, efforts should be made to ensure that the diet is adequate in terms of quality for at least three to four months prior to the intended time of conception.

Despite big improvements in antenatal care premature birth rates have not declined in Britain since the 1960’s. The findings from this, the first significant study to investigate underweight in pregnancy, suggest that the modern obsession with body shape could explain why. More than 49,000 pre-term babies are delivered every year in Britain, accounting for 7% of births. Half of these pregnancies could be contributed to by inadequate nutrition.

It has previously been theorised that some women with weight problems who normally keep slim through restrained eating may suffer what as been termed ‘motivational collapse’ during pregnancy. This is due to their body shape and lifestyle being radically altered. But certainly from the results of this study, dieting for weight loss during pregnancy is to be discouraged as it can result in a low birth weight incidence.

A realistic weight gain should be encouraged during pregnancy and women then reassured that they will lose weight post-partum. The following are the recommended weight gain guidelines for pregnant women:
Normal weight: 25 to 35 pounds.
Overweight: 15 to 25 pounds.
Underweight: 28 to 40 pounds, depending on your pre-pregnancy weight.
Gaining the right amount of weight will make it easier for you to shed pounds after delivery and will prepare your body for breastfeeding.

Regarding having children, we encourage you to see your GP if you are concerned about your weight. They can help you determine the weight gain that is right for you. If you are already pregnant, do not try to diet. If you are pregnant and are overweight, do not try to diet. Our advice from here is to eat healthily before you get pregnant. Also, if you are planning to conceive, it's very important to take a 400 microgram supplement of folic acid each day.

Start a diet plan at tescodiets.com

Thanks to tescodiets.com who have provided this article.