Low carb intake linked to increased risk of congenital disabilities

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25 Jan 2018 --- Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant may want to avoid diets that reduce or eliminate carbohydrates, as they could increase the risk of having babies with neural tube birth defects, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Further findings showed that the dietary intake of folic acid – an essential nutrient for pregnant women – among women with a restricted carbohydrate intake was less than half of other women.

The study, published in the journal Birth Defects Research, found that women with a low carbohydrate intake are 30 percent more likely to have babies with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (malformations of the spine and spinal cord) and anencephaly (absence of major portions of the brain and skull), that can lead to lifelong disability and infant death, when compared with women who do not restrict their carbohydrate intake.

“We already know that maternal diet before and during early pregnancy plays a significant role in fetal development. What is new about this study is its suggestion that low carbohydrate intake could increase the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect by 30 percent. This is concerning because low carbohydrate diets are fairly popular,” says Tania Desrosiers, Ph.D., MPH, and research assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, who led the study. 

“This finding reinforces the importance for women who may become pregnant to talk to their health care provider about any special diets or eating behaviors they routinely practice,” Desroziers adds.

Folic acid is an essential nutrient that minimizes the risk of neural tube defects. More than 20 percent of women in the US have blood folate concentrations below the recommended level to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. For this reason, in 1998 the Food and Drug Administration began requiring that folic acid be added to enriched grain products. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all women who may become pregnant take a daily multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before and during pregnancy. 

However, because almost half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, many women do not initiate folic acid supplementation until later in pregnancy, after a neural tube defect may have occurred. This makes fortified foods an important source of folic acid for women who may become pregnant.
 

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