Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities present at birth. They cause physical and mental disabilities, and are the leading cause of death in infants. A healthy pregnancy diet and taking the right supplements before conception and during pregnancy will help prevent birth defects. In this article we will focus on the top birth defects due to pregnancy diet. If you are pregnant, you have to understand which nutrients you need most during pregnancy, in order to avoid these birth defects in your baby.
1. Neural Tube Defects
Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, are problems of the brain or spine development, which begins during the first trimester of pregnancy. In a child with spina bifida, spinal column does not close completely, causing nerve damage and paralysis of the legs. If anencephaly occurs, children usually do not survive, as most parts of the brain do not develop.
Neural tube defects may be caused by lack of vitamin B9, also known as folic acid, in the mother’s diet. Administration of adequate amounts of folic acid before and during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, helps prevent most neural tube defects. The required amount of folic acid is 400 micrograms per day, in the form of multivitamins or foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid. Foods rich in folate are leafy green vegetables, whole grains and orange juice, dried beans, peas and fruit.
Another essential vitamin to prevent neural tube defects is vitamin B12. The requirement for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day, and 2.6 micrograms per day during pregnancy. Good sources of vitamin B12 are dairy products, red meat, chicken and eggs. Just as with folic acid, women need adequate intake of vitamin B12 prior to conception and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
Women who have a higher risk of having low levels of B12 are those with intestinal disorders that prevent the absorption of vitamins and those who consume just small amounts of meat, eggs and dairy products. Women with poor or restricted diet are also at risk of having children with neural tube defects.
2. Congenital heart disease
Women with a diet low in riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin (vitamin B3) are at risk of having children with congenital heart disease. Pregnant women should avoid diets rich in saturated fats. Dairy products (low-fat or fat-free to avoid saturated fat), liver and leafy greens are good sources of vitamin B2. Vitamin B3 is found in chicken, fish, liver, nuts and whole grains.
Gastroschisis is a birth defect in which the baby’s abdominal wall shows a crack or tear. A pregnancy diet low in proteins and zinc is an important factor that can lead to gastroschisis. Also, women who have a low body mass index show a higher risk of having a baby with gastroschisis. Poor nutrition and smoking during pregnancy can also cause gastroschisis.
A healthy pregnancy diet should include around 71 grams of protein a day. Good sources of protein are poultry, lean meat, fish, eggs. Vegetarian mothers can take their proteins from nuts, seeds, beans and peas, as well as soy products. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc during pregnancy is 11 milligrams daily. Great food sources of zinc are cereals and red meat.
4. Congenital diaphragmatic hernia
In the list of major birth defects due to pregnancy diet, we must include congenital diaphragmatic hernia. This disorder is characterized by an opening in the diaphragm that causes the abdominal contents to reach into the chest cavity.
Women who have a diet low in vitamin B12, vitamin E, calcium, retinol and selenium show a higher risk of having children with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. Vitamin supplementation can greatly reduce this risk. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, such as meat, milk, and eggs. Pregnant women need around 1,000 milligrams of Calcium a day. The best natural sources of calcium are dairy products, but also broccoli and fruit. A healthy intake of Vitamin E is of 3mg per day, which pregnant women should achieve from a well-balanced pregnancy diet only. Good natural sources of Vitamin E are olive oil, cherries, blueberries, peanuts, hazelnuts, boiled eggs.
5. Cleft palate
Cleft palate is a birth defect in which the palate does not close completely during fetal development. Women with a restricted diet or those who do not have adequate nutrition are at risk of having a child with cleft palate. Lack of folic acid and vitamin A in the mother’s diet are associated with this isolated cleft palate.
The standard of measurement for vitamin A is RAE (retinol activity equivalents). Pregnant women should include around 770 micrograms RAE per day. Fruits and vegetables, particularly the yellow and orange ones, which are rich in bet-carotene, are great sources of Vitamin E.
6. Fetal alcohol syndrome
Doctors say that women should avoid alcohol consumption during pregnancy to prevent the fetal alcohol syndrome. These babies are smaller, present poor development and health problems that can last a lifetime. Therefore, alcohol should be excluded from the pregnancy diet, as the defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are irreversible.
Proper nutrition is very important for both mother and baby. Prenatal vitamin supplements can provide the vitamins and micronutrients that are so important for both mother and baby. Iron and calcium supplements are very important for child development. However, pregnant women should not take any supplements without seeking medical advice first.
A poor diet not only increases the risk of birth defects. It can also contribute to premature birth, pregnancies not being carried to term and high-risk pregnancies. Nutrition in pregnancy is very important and the mother needs to remember that she should adapt her diet to the child’s needs. So, make sure you follow your doctor’s advice and avoid birth defects due to pregnancy diet.