Food Choices during Pregnancy Matter

April 7, 2016 Brigham and Women's Hospital

Food Choices during Pregnancy Matter

Dr. Sarbattama Sen, a BWH neonatologist, has found that pro-inflammatory diets during pregnancy are associated with lower-than-expected birthweight in certain groups.

The effects of a woman’s food choices during pregnancy and the impact on her health and the health of her baby are not well understood.

“We have known for some time that diet plays a key role in inflammation and that excessive inflammation is associated with negative health effects in adults. There have been few studies, however, investigating the role of inflammation in pregnancy, when both the health of the mother and the fetus are at stake,” says Dr. Sarbattama Sen, a neonatologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).

A recent study led by BWH researchers used the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) to score a woman’s diet during pregnancy and to measure the influence of her diet on both inflammation during pregnancy and on maternal and infant outcomes before and after childbirth. The DII assigns an inflammatory score to food components. Previous studies in non-pregnant adults have found that some food components, such as caffeine and trans, saturated, and monounsaturated fats, have a pro-inflammatory effect, while others, such as vitamin A, beta carotene, fiber and magnesium, have an anti-inflammatory effect.

In the study, 1,808 expectant mothers completed food questionnaires in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. The responses were used to create individualized DII scores for the women. Higher scores indicated a more pro-inflammatory diet, and lower scores indicated a more anti-inflammatory diet. Blood samples taken from each participant in the second trimester measured two markers of inflammation – C-reactive protein (CRP) and white blood cell count. The team also collected information on the women’s pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI).

Participants who had higher DII scores also had higher CRP levels. Women who had higher BMIs before pregnancy tended to have higher DII scores and also higher CRP levels. The researchers found that pro-inflammatory diets were associated with lower rates of breastfeeding past one month of age and lower than expected birthweight in certain groups.

“When talking with pregnant women and new moms, we often discuss diet in terms of calories and macronutrients – like protein and carbohydrates – but we haven’t paid much attention to dietary inflammation until now,” says Dr. Sen. “By focusing on the elements of diet that may be linked to inflammation, we’ve been able tease out certain outcomes that may be associated with pro- or anti-inflammatory diets.”

These findings were published online in The Journal of Nutrition.

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