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New Study: Plant-based and Other Diets Can Affect Fetal Health

Publication Date: 2/25/2024 9:00 AM

Plant-based diets are increasing in popularity. Danish experts claim that vegan and vegetarian diets can put expectant mothers and infants at risk. What are the consequences of these diets, and what should be done? An expert physician at Rambam Health Care Campus (Rambam) in Haifa, Israel elaborates.

Dr. Ido Solt. Credit: Rambam HCC.
Photo: Tatiana Sablina prepares to leave RambamDr. Ido Solt. Credit: Rambam HCC. Photo: Tatiana Sablina prepares to leave Rambam

Dr. Ido Solt, director of the Professor Dov and Mrs. Edith Katz Maternal and Fetal Medicine Unit at Rambam, weighs in on the results of a study by scientists from the University of Copenhagen. The study titled “Adherence to different forms of plant-based diets and pregnancy outcomes in the Danish National Birth Cohort: A prospective observational study which analyzed data provided by tens of thousands of participants” was published recently in Acta Obstetricia Et Gynecologica Scandinavica, and the results are interesting.

The study examined the lifestyles and diets of women of reproductive age following vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous diets. Women in their 25th week of pregnancy were quizzed about their pregnancy, diet, and lifestyle, and again in the 30th week.

A vegan diet has a price

What risks do a vegan or vegetarian diet pose to mother and fetus, and what are the consequences? These are the main results of the study:

  • Pregnant women following a vegan or vegetarian diet are at a higher risk for preeclampsia.
  • Infants born to vegan or vegetarian mothers have a lower birth weight – an average of about 200 grams, compared to the birth weight of infants of omnivorous mothers.
  • More infants born to vegan mothers weigh less than 2.5kg compared to infants of omnivorous mothers (11% in the vegan population and 2.5% among the omnivorous population). This result indicates a higher potential for developmental problems in newborns.
  • ‘Vegan pregnancies’ are longer than those who eat everything – an average of 5.2 days. In theory, an infant can gain up to 150 grams during this time; however, these infants were born with lower weights than the infants of mothers following a carnivorous diet.

“It’s known that a vegan diet has a price,” says Dr. Solt. “People following a vegan diet require supplements to maintain normal body function. Protein is very important, especially during pregnancy, and the Danish research data reflects this.”

Dietary choice also seems to affect the course of pregnancy. Gestational diabetes was less prevalent in women eating a vegan diet, yet the rate of preeclampsia in 11% of the group was almost four times higher. Among meat-eating women, the figure was 2.6%.

“The data on gestational diabetes is definitely good news,” emphasizes Dr. Solt. “More than anything, results testify to the inherent power of an omnivorous diet and its ability to influence the rate of gestational diabetes for the better. However, the high percentage of preeclampsia among vegan women is a red light and an initial and worrying finding. Preeclampsia is a placental problem that develops at the beginning of pregnancy. More research is needed to understand this mechanism fully.”

Based on the study’s results, Dr. Solt adds that a vegan lifestyle is perceived as healthier, but a lack of protein in these diets affects pregnancy and fetal development. Fewer vegans smoke and more engage in physical activity, indicating that the lifestyles of both groups are not comparable. Still, more complications arose. The consumption of proteins is an essential component of a normal pregnancy, which is why it is recommended.

“Another important conclusion from the study is the importance of supplements like zinc, iodine, iron, B12, calcium, and others that vegan women take as multivitamins,” Dr. Solt summarizes, “Although these supplements do not affect birthweight, they certainly prevent additional complications.”

Based on an article that first appeared on the Hebrew website, Mako.