A pregant women eats cereal.
Stanford University released a study which found that healthy eating habits lower the risk of birth defects. Photo: Getty Images

Pregnant women who eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and eat fewer foods high in things like saturated fats and sugar, have a lower risk of giving birth to babies with specific birth defects.

That’s the takeaway from a study released today by Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. The study showed pregnant women with healthy eating habits are less likely to have babies with neural tube defects (malformations of the brain or spine) and orofacial clefts (such as cleft lip or cleft palate).

Women from 10 U.S. states were surveyed about the quality of their diets immediately before and during pregnancy. Those with the highest quality eating habits were 36 to 51 percent less likely to have babies with  anencephaly, a fatal birth defect where the baby is born without part of the brain or skull. Women with healthier diets were also 24 to 34 percent less likely to have babies born with cleft lip.

Suzan Carmichael, the lead author of the study and an associate professor at Stanford University, said her research team found that women with high quality diets were more protected from these birth defects regardless of whether or not they took vitamin or mineral supplements.

Carmichael said this was the first large-scale study examining the relationship between overall diet and birth defects.

“In the past we’ve focused on looking at one nutrient at a time – like the B vitamin folic acid. But in reality we know that foods contain a lot of nutrients that interact in our bodies. They don’t just act in isolation; they depend on each other.”

She said the study showed for the first time that an overall healthy diet, not just single nutrients, reduces the risk of birth defects.

“This study supports recommendations that have been made for many years for pregnant women,” said Carmichael. “Eat a variety of foods and include a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains in your diet.”

Stanford researchers plan to do more studies to see whether diet quality is protective against other birth defects. The study was published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, and funded by the National Institute of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Shuka Kalantari

Shuka Kalantari is a Bay Area journalist reporting on health, food, culture and immigrant communities in California and internationally. She's reported for Public Radio International’s The World, BBC World News Service’s Outlook, Philosophy Talk, Vice Magazine. Shuka is also a frequent contributor to KQED Public Media. You can follow her @skalantari on Twitter and Instagram.

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