The Wrong Diet Could Harm Your Future Baby

New research indicates that a healthy diet needs to happen well before conception to lower chances of congenital heart defects. Here's what that means for you.

The Wrong Diet Could Harm Your Future Baby

Eating a healthy diet is an important goal for most pregnant women, but what about pre-pregnancy nutrition? A new study is indicating that women should probably be thinking about what's on their plates well before they try for a baby.

A healthier future baby

Research recently published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood is drawing a link between maternal diet the year before conception and a decreased risk of heart abnormalities in newborns.

The team of researchers looked at nearly 20,000 women participating in the National Birth Defects Prevention Study and asked them pointed questions about their eating habits in the 12 months prior to becoming pregnant. Out of the subject pool, about half had healthy babies and half had newborns with major heart abnormalities, all between 1997 and 2009. Those who ate better before conceiving (in the top 25% of diet quality) were about 37% less likely to give birth to a baby with tetralogy of fallot—an abnormality involving a hole in the heart and a narrowing of the main vessel that goes to the lungs, which can lead to conditions such as "blue baby"—and 23% less likely to have a child with atrial septal defects—an abnormality involving a hole in the wall between the left and right sides of the heart.

"The key here is that healthy changes need to start before conception," study author Lorenzo Botto, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and a medical geneticist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, told Fit Pregnancy. "Sure, prenatal health—during the pregnancy—is very important, but to prevent birth defects, which occur in the very first weeks after conception—when many women do not even know they are pregnant—it is important to have stable optimal health before conception." This is especially important considering the fetal heart starts beating around four weeks after conception.

What constitutes a "healthy diet"

Considering how relatively common congenital heart defects are, affecting approximately 1 in 100 American babies at birth, this research is offering vital information for prevention. To that end, what constitutes a healthy diet isn't necessarily black and white, but there are guidelines. The scientists calculated nutritional measures using both the Mediterranean diet and the Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy, which accounts for current guidelines such as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables with folic acid and iron and very few sweets. A healthy or "prudent diet" was also full of whole wheat grains, reduced-fat dairy, and fish.

Related: 10 Prenatal Power Foods to Start Eating Now

As always, this type of observational study doesn't make a cause and effect distinction, but rather draws associations between diet and birth outcomes. Still, it's good enough evidence that women of childbearing age might want to start thinking up to a year in advance about optimizing their nutrition.