Study reveals truth about diet in pregnancy

Friday, 17 October 2014

Researchers from the University of Newcastle have found there is no universal consensus on what constitutes an optimal diet for women before, during and after pregnancy, despite a glut of nutritional information being available.

Pregnancy diet

Dietitian and PhD candidate, Ellie Gresham, led a team conducting the largest ever meta-analysis and systematic review of international research trials pertaining to dietary interventions for expectant mothers, dating from 1978 to 2011.

The initial search found more than 5,000 relevant articles, of which more than 2,300 were exhaustively screened. Included were studies that provided dietary counselling and/or food interventions. The collective results were then used to determine the overall effect of diet on neonatal and infant health.

"Our aim was to analyse whether dietary interventions had an effect on pregnancy, neonatal and infant outcomes," Ms Gresham said.

"We found there was a positive effect on birth weight and a reduced incidence of low birth weight using whole foods and fortified foods as dietary interventions. Fortified foods included foods and drinks with higher levels of nutrients."

Results of the review have now been published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, accompanied by an editorial from researchers at the UK's University of Southampton Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit.

Evidence shows small babies are more likely to start life in neonatal intensive care, and maternal nutritional status can have lasting effects on offspring health and wellbeing.

"It's an important time for both mother and child but we still can't pinpoint what is optimal," Ms Gresham said.

 "While there are national dietary guidelines we can't say to expectant mums that if you follow this particular diet you will have a healthy baby.

"From here, more high-quality research is needed for pre-conception diets, through pregnancy and lactation phases and finally subsequent pregnancies. This will help determine the most crucial times to pay attention to diet."

Low birth weight affects approximately 8-10 per cent of Australia's newborns. The research found no significant effects on other outcomes such as placental weight, head circumference and infant deaths.
Editorial author, Professor Keith Godfrey, said the review was the largest of its kind to date.

"The review provides some clues to help improve the health of the next generation, and also highlights the challenges in providing sound advice for pregnant mothers, Professor Godfrey said.

"While it is clear that diet in pregnancy can affect immediate outcomes, far less is known about diet around the time of conception or the consequences for the child's health in later life."

Ellie Gresham is a member of the University of Newcastle's Priority Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing. The centre works in conjunction with HMRI's Public Health Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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