Low-carb? High-protein? Low-fat? These days choosing what to eat can be challenging. There are many theories about healthy eating, and all don’t work for everyone.
Some dietary patterns restrict consumption of specific nutrients. While they may support weight loss and be helpful in managing distinct conditions, experts question their long-term benefits for large segments of the population. Certainly, they are not advisable for pregnant women, who need a wide range of nutrients to develop a thriving newborn.
Low-Carb Diets Aren’t Good for Pregnancy
Low-carb diets are a case in point. if you’re pregnant or planning to conceive the evidence is consistent: baby-making and breastfeeding demand nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Among their benefits, foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains provide fiber, which supports a robust microbiome. The mother’s bacterial legacy determines the bacteria passed on to the newborn, both in the process of birth and in her breast milk. These high-fiber foods also provide minerals like magnesium, vitamins A, C, E and a range of B vitamins, nutrients which ensure that the developing baby obtains the building blocks it needs.
Folate is Crucial
When it comes to building healthy babies, folate (vitamin B9) deserves a shout-out. Fetal growth is characterized by rapid cell division, which consumes folate at lightning speed. If folate is deficient, the risk of certain birth defects rises dramatically.
Scientists identified the connection between folate deficiency and neural tube defects decades ago. Consequently, many countries began fortifying grain products with the nutrient in the 1990’s, significantly reducing the incidence of neural tube defects.
Around the same time, low-carb diets were gaining traction. This raised concern that women were at risk for folate deficiencies, which was justified by subsequent research. A 2018 study showed that pregnant women following low-carb diets consumed less than half the average intake of folate. Moreover, they were 30 % more likely to deliver babies with neural tube defects.
Beyond Birth Defects
Inadequate folate intake --- pre-conception as well as during pregnancy --- has been linked with other pregnancy-related problems, including impaired fertility, miscarriage, and pre-term birth. Folate deficiency can also undermine a pregnant woman’s health, raising her risk of developing conditions like anemia.
In addition, folate deficiency can set the stage for long-term health problems in offspring. Folate is a “methyl donor,” which means it regulates genes requiring methylation.
Metabolic Problems are a Risk
When pregnant women don’t consume enough nutrients, their offspring are more likely to have methylation patterns that set the stage for metabolic problems. One British study of 80 pregnant women that zeroed in on the effects of a low-carbohydrate diet found higher rates of obesity in offspring. These researchers also discovered that the short supply of carbohydrates sabotaged methylation of a gene connected with fat cell development.
Balance is Best
Although the hard work of baby building requires specific nutrients, the overall quality of a woman’s diet while pregnant significantly shapes her offspring’s well-being. A balanced diet based on eating a variety of whole foods is the best strategy for promoting long-term health. Longstanding guidance from the Institutes of Medicine recommend flexible ranges for each micronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) based on the knowledge that they substitute for one another to meet the body’s energy needs. Over time, each should provide about one third of the required nutrients.
One problem with eliminating an entire category of food is that it sets you up to eat too much of another. For instance, low-carb diets are likely to be too high in fat and possibly protein. Research shows that when pregnant women overconsume protein and fat, it raises the risk of insulin deficiency in their offspring.
Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods
One dietary no-no is ultra-processed foods. When mothers-to-be eat too many high-fat, high calorie foods while pregnant, their offspring are more likely to develop diabetes and obesity. These babies were also at increased risk for asthma and tended to be lower in weight than the norm (potentially a marker for chronic illness.)
There is still a lot we don’t know about how nutrients interact with our bodies, but one thing has become increasingly clear: the single-variable approach to eating doesn’t support all the complex biological processes that keep us healthy. The best way to meet all your body’s needs, especially during pregnancy, is to eat a balanced diet built around a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods.