Eating Less Sugar Can Reduce Pregnancy Problems

Poor diet affects health of mother and baby

By Karen Hock, Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK)

Laura Forbes

Prof. Laura Forbes. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

A prenatal diet high in sugar may lead to complications for both mother and child, says a U of G researcher.

Prof. Laura Forbes, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, is researching the effects of sugar intake during pregnancy. Increased prenatal sugar consumption has been linked to gestational diabetes, weight gain and increased blood pressure throughout pregnancy.

Forbes says more than half of pregnant women in Canada gain more weight than they should and more than half need to improve their diet. Forbes encourages women to adopt healthy behaviours before they become pregnant to help ensure a healthy pregnancy. “Being as healthy as you can affects your health and the child’s in the long term,” she says.

Obesity and diabetes are increasing in North America, which may be partly due to rising sugar consumption. Specifically, Forbes has found that during pregnancy, women increase their sugar intake because of cravings and may turn to sweetened beverages to combat morning sickness or as an alternative to alcohol.

Three hundred women from Edmonton, Alta., where Forbes completed her post-doctoral research, were recruited as part of the Sweet Moms Study, which examined the dietary habits of pregnant women. Food frequency questionnaires determined intake levels of more than 150 foods the women consumed the year before they became pregnant. Participants were also asked to recall what they ate in the previous 24 hours.

Forbes is now examining the association between diet and pregnancy complications. She is interested in learning whether high-sugar diets are related to various pregnancy outcomes, including abnormalities in maternal weight gain or weight retention after pregnancy, and health issues, such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and early or late deliveries.

She is also studying labour and delivery characteristics, including labour length, excessive bleeding and the babies’ birth weight.

Although the data has yet to be analyzed, Forbes hopes this study will lead to improved dietary recommendations for pregnant women. “Prenatal education doesn’t happen much,” she says. “Family doctors or obstetricians may or may not talk about nutrition, and most women do not get a lot of prenatal nutrition advice.”

The alternative, she says — magazines, books, family and friends — may lead to misinformation. “There is room for improvement in this area of health care,” she says.

Many of the participants in the Sweet Moms Study wanted to learn more about nutrition but could not find appropriate resources, so Forbes plans to develop a program to educate women about prenatal dietary needs. She will interview health-care providers and pregnant women to develop a program that provides improved and cost-effective clinical care.

Prof. Rhonda Bell at the University of Alberta is the principal investigator for the study, and funding was provided by the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.