Women's diets before pregnancy may affect newborns' health, study finds

Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

Eating a lot of fast food or drinking a lot of soda can be detrimental once women get pregnant

While women’s health during pregnancy is crucial, a new study conducted by researchers from St. John’s College has found that women’s health before pregnancy is also important. The study showed that women’s diets even before they’re pregnant may negatively affect their newborns’ health and their breast milk. 

“The striking part is that a short exposure to a diet from just before pregnancy that may not be noticeably changing a women’s body size or body weight may still be having implications for their mother’s health, the unborn child, and her ability to support the newborn later,” said researcher Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri. “We’re getting more and more information that a mother’s diet is so important. What you’re eating for many years before or just before pregnancy can have quite an impact on the baby's development.” 

Pregnancy health risks

The researchers conducted their study on mice and sought to better understand how women’s diets before pregnancy can affect newborn health outcomes. A group of mice was fed a diet that mimicked a fast food meal – a cheeseburger, French fries, and soda – for three weeks before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and after delivery. 

This unhealthy diet before pregnancy was detrimental to both the mothers’ health and the babies’ health. The researchers found that eating foods high in sugar and fat affected the nutrients in the mother’s breast milk, which can ultimately impact infants’ health outcomes and increase the likelihood of fat tissue in the body during pregnancy. 

“They ended up with fatty livers, which is really dangerous for the mum, and there was altered formation of the placenta,” Sferruzzi-Perri said. “The weight of the fetus itself wasn’t affected. They seemed lighter, but it wasn’t significant. But what was also apparent was that the nutrition to the fetus was changed in pregnancy. 

“Then when we looked at how the mum may be supporting the baby after pregnancy, we found that her mammary gland developed and her milk protein composition was altered, and that may have been the explanation for the greater health problems of the newborn pups.” 

The researchers hope more work is done to educate women about the benefits of following a healthy diet before, during, and after pregnancy. They explained that a healthy lifestyle is important regardless of pregnancy status, and prioritizing healthy foods can benefit women beyond the days of their pregnancy. 

“It’s about having a good quality diet for the mum to have good quality milk so the baby can thrive,” said Sferruzzi-Perri. “That can have implications not just on their health and well-being, but also the health and well-being of their child. We also know that this is not only in the immediate period after birth, as unhealthy diets can lead to a lifelong risk of diabetes and heart disease for the child in the longer term. So these diets can really create a continuum of negative health impacts, with implications for subsequent generations.” 

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