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Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies: Proper pregnancy nutrition can reduce the risk of having a premature baby by 15 percent.

You can add “reduces the risk of preterm delivery” to the wonders a diet filled with fruits and vegetables can do. That’s the conclusion of a study recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).[1] Researchers found that proper pregnancy nutrition — specifically, a diet that emphasized vegetables, fruit, whole grain products and certain fish— went a long way toward reducing the risk of preterm delivery. Fifteen percent, to be precise.

This is an important finding, because premature babies face an increased risk of a variety of health challenges, from cerebral palsy to respiratory and vision problems. In fact, ensuring healthy full-term pregnancies is a key public health goal.

Want to know the study details? Over the course of six years, researchers followed 66,000 pregnant women in Norway, where the prevalence of preterm birth is a lot lower than in the United States. (It’s six percent for all the Nordic countries combined, versus 12 percent for the United States. That alone should tell us we’re doing something wrong!) Based on food questionnaires, researchers classified the women’s diets as falling into three patterns: prudent (with frequent consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with water as a beverage), Western (with more salty and sweet snack foods, white bread, and processed meats), and traditional Norwegian (with high levels of fish and potatoes). 

After controlling for ten other factors known to be related to having premature babies, researchers found women who followed the prudent dietary pattern had a 15 percent reduced risk for early delivery when compared to those eating the Western diet. (Those following the traditional Norwegian diet also had significantly reduced risk.)

More good news: you don’t have to be perfect to improve your chances of a full-term pregnancy. Researchers noted that increasing intake of healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and fish is more important than completely excluding less-healthy foods. So the occasional bowl of ice cream isn’t a problem for prenatal health, as long you’re filling your plate with broccoli, tomatoes, omega-3 rich fish, and whole grains most of the time.

Rates of preterm delivery vary notably by country and scientists have long suspected diet may be a factor. Now we have definitive proof that getting the right pregnancy nutrition — including plenty of fruits and vegetables — makes a difference. Lead researcher Linda Englund-Ogge summed it up like this: “Pregnant women have many reasons to choose a healthy diet… but this is the first time we can statistically link healthy eating habits to reduced risk of preterm delivery.

Moms and moms-to-be: What strategies did you use, or are you currently using, to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet while pregnant?


[1] Englund-Ogge L, et al. Maternal dietary patterns and preterm delivery: results from large prospective cohort study. BMJ 2014 Mar 4;348:g1446.

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