Consider Following the Mediterranean Diet During Pregnancy

It’s no secret that eating nutrient-dense, well-balanced foods during pregnancy is essential. After all, what you eat will help give your baby everything they need to develop and grow, while also fueling your body. But scientists recently found that following the Mediterranean diet during pregnancy may actually reduce the risk of dangerously high blood pressure and other complications.

According to this new study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, pregnant people who followed the Mediterranean diet during the time of conception and through pregnancy reduced their risk of preeclampsia by 28 percent.

“Preeclampsia during pregnancy or postpartum can cause your blood pressure to rise and put you at risk for stroke,” said Nidhi Mehta, MD, a cardiologist at Lehigh Valley Health Heart and Vascular Institute in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “It can impair kidney and liver function, cause fluid in the lungs, seizures, and, if untreated, maternal and infant death. It can also lead to smaller or prematurely born babies.”

Dr. Mehta adds that the preeclampsia rate is 60 percent higher in Black women than in white women, and Black women are more likely to develop severe preeclampsia. The study also noted that women over the age of 35 saw better outcomes when eating on the Mediterranean diet, and it also reduced the risk of gestational diabetes.

What is the Mediterranean diet, exactly?

This anti-inflammatory diet primarily consists of fish, olive oil, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and nuts, with a heavy emphasis on consuming whole foods. It is modeled after the eating habits of those who live close to the Mediterranean sea and draws inspiration from the diets of Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.

A key characteristic and benefit of the diet is the limit of processed and refined sugars. People on the diet reduce their white sugar, butter, and starch intake, replacing them with fiber-heavy foods like brown rice, farro, and lentils.

A typical day of eating on the Mediterranean diet consists of three meals and snacks in between. Breakfast is usually some form of Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts, followed by a meat-free lunch like a salad with hummus and lots of vegetables, and dinner is often a roasted salmon or chicken with more vegetables and grains.

What does the research show?

To better understand how the Mediterranean diet might impact pregnancy and potential complications, researchers looked at data from the Nulliparous Pregnancy Outcomes Study. The study enrolled 10,038 women who were pregnant for the first time and were in their first trimester, and before beginning the study, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their food habits and frequency of eating. Their responses were then categorized and monitored.

What they found was that women who more closely followed a Mediterranean diet were 21 percent less likely to have any pregnancy-related adverse outcome, 28 percent less likely to develop preeclampsia, and 37 percent less likely to develop gestational diabetes.

“These findings do not surprise me. These dietary patterns focus on minimizing processed meats which are high in sodium, and ultra-processed foods which are high in sugar and high in fat, which are known to increase oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction in the blood vessels,” said Dr. Mehta, which may contribute to high blood pressure. “I suspect that the Med lifestyle leads to improved placental vascular function, thereby possibly reducing the risk of preeclampsia.”

Other studies have found similar results. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in April 2022 had on-par findings regarding preeclampsia, and another study published in PLOS Medicine in 2019 found following the Mediterranean diet during pregnancy could reduce the risk of gestational diabetes.

“The main aspects of the Med diet that contributes to a healthier pregnancy are the high fiber and high antioxidant intake which is found in fresh fruits and vegetables and grains.”—Nidhi Mehta, MD

What are some ways to incorporate this type of diet into your lifestyle while pregnant?

Experts recommend consulting with your personal doctor or OB-GYN before you make any drastic dietary changes or restrictions during pregnancy, but variety is important. This includes consuming a wide range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Dr. Mehta recommends focusing on reducing sodium content and saturated fats and incorporating more fruits and vegetables whenever you can. And in line with the Mediterranean diet, The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends eating eight to 12 ounces of seafood each week that are low in mercury. Options include canned light tuna, catfish, cod, herring, oysters, salmon, shad, shrimp, tilapia, and trout.

They also recommend implementing a daily prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid, iron, calcium, and Vitamin D, bumping up your caloric intake with each trimester, and avoiding alcohol of any kind.

“The main aspects of the Med diet that contributes to a healthier pregnancy are the high fiber and high antioxidant intake which is found in fresh fruits and vegetables and grains,” said Dr. Mehta.

 

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