New research on the effects certain food trends, like paleo or keto, have on pregnancy suggests that low carb diets may be linked to birth defects. The study, published today in the journal Birth Defects Research, found that people who reduced or eliminated their carbohydrate intake when pregnant or trying to conceive were 30 percent more likely to have a baby with neural tube defects like spina bifida, a defect that affects the formation of the spine and spinal cord.
“We already know that maternal diet before and during early pregnancy plays a significant role in fetal development,” the study’s lead researcher Tania Desrosiers, PhD, MPH, and research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a press release. However, these new findings are particularly significant given how widespread these kinds of diets have become. As Desrosiers said, “This is concerning because low carbohydrate diets are fairly popular.”
Paleo diets have seen a surge of popularity in recent years as have ketogenic diets (also known as keto). Celebrities like Kim Kardashian have been said to abide by these low carb, high fat or high protein diets. However, there is continued debate about whether these diets are good for long term weight loss or overall health.
Researchers believe this increased risk in health defects may be linked to low carb diets’ effect on folic acid intake. Increasing intake of folates and folic acid while pregnant helps reduce the risk of the baby’s neural tube defects. This new study found that the folic acid intake of women who had a low carb or no carb diet was less than half that among women who weren’t on a carb restricted diet.
In addition to spinach and black-eyed peas, the NIH lists breakfast cereal, rice, and spaghetti as food rich in folic acid. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), folic acid plays an important role in “nucleic acid synthesis.” Doctors often recommend women take supplements as it may be difficult to get the full recommended daily intake of folic acid through food alone. However, folic acid supplements may be required to do more heavy lifting among people on a low carb diet.
Some scientists and health experts believe low carb diets like Atkins or paleo can actually hurt your health. In addition to potentially not providing you with enough energy or giving you too much protein, certain versions of these diets tend to perpetuate the idea that “one-size-fits-all” and that our bodies react to food identically.
Pregnant people need to pay extra care to the food their putting in their body, since it’s also helping to feed the baby. Carbs are a pregnancy food go-to for reasons other than the obvious (pasta is delicious, potatoes are a godsend, etc.). Because pregnant people need to up their calorie intake and carbs are often high in calories, doctors may recommend people increase the amount of carbs in their diet. Carbs are also thought to help curb low blood sugar and nausea, which is especially helpful when dealing with morning sickness.
Of course, correlation is not the same as causation. An increased risk does not entail a guaranteed effect. However, these new findings are another reminder for pregnant people and people trying to become pregnant that it’s best to consult a doctor regarding any dietary practices.
As Desrosiers said, “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.” Provided it isn’t providing a risk to the pregnant person’s specific health needs, perhaps it’s best to forgo the low carb life for nine months and indulge in a piece of bread or two. You know, for the baby.