Changing diet and lifestyle during pregnancy is too little and too late to reduce the risk of major complications, according to a University of Queensland researcher.
UQ School of Public Health researcher Professor Gita Mishra has called for action at a national level to improve the health of Australian women, to reduce risks in planned and unplanned pregnancies and improve the future health of women and their children.
Professor Mishra led the Australian contribution to an overview of international research on preconception health, published in the Lancet.
“The evidence overwhelmingly showed healthier pregnancies when women were able to make positive lifestyle changes before conception, such as eating well, being more active or quitting smoking,” Professor Mishra said.
“Women with a lower body mass index before conception lowered their risks of pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, pre-term birth and stillbirth.
“Higher levels of physical activity before conception resulted in lowered risk of gestational diabetes.
“Also, we know from our own research that women who have a diet high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts before conception have lower rates of gestational diabetes.”
The Lancet series brought together the latest research on health interventions before and during pregnancy, with new data from women’s health studies in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Data from Women’s Health Australia (also known as the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health) showed that only 10 per cent of Australian women ate the recommended daily serve of fruit and vegetables during their key childbearing years.
Their overall obesity rate rose from 27 per cent at age 18 to 23 to almost 40 per cent by age 36 to 42.
Women in the study who were planning a pregnancy did cut back on cigarettes and alcohol, but they weren’t increasing their fruit and vegetable intake and had higher body mass index, and exercised less than women who weren’t planning a pregnancy.
Professor Mishra said the inconsistencies in the way women prepared for pregnancy highlighted the need for education and intervention programs.
“This isn’t about pressuring women at an individual level or making them feel guilty,” she said.
“It’s going to take a huge social shift to tackle the obesity crisis and improve the nation’s eating habits, and to do that we need population-level health initiatives supported by all levels of government,”
“The message that everyone needs to hear, whether they are planning a pregnancy or not, is that women who are active and eat more fruit and vegetables will have a much healthier pregnancy and baby.