Overweight Mothers at Greater Risk for Birth Defects

Obese women more likely to have babies with spina bifida, heart disease.

Hoping to prevent future birth defects, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are urging women who are thinking of starting families to trim the fat from their diets and start exercising more. According to a new CDC study, obese or overweight women are more likely than average-weight women to have an infant with birth defects.

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  • class=MsoNormal>The study, published in the May issue of Pediatrics, found that birth defects, such as spina bifida and heart disease, are more prevalent among babies born to overweight mothers. Why this is, however, remains a mystery.  

    class=MsoNormal>“There are three intriguing possibilities,” says study author and CDC epidemiologist Margaret Watkins. They are: 

    class=MsoNormal style="MARGIN-LEFT: 39pt; TEXT-INDENT: -0.25in; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1; tab-stops: list 39.0pt">·         Metabolic alterations occur in obese women. For instance, the body may increase the production of chemicals such as glucose or estrogen, which in turn could increase the risk of birth defects, says Watkins.

    ·         Obesity is often linked to diabetes, and complications from diabetes could have a devastating effect on a developing fetus. “While we intentionally excluded diabetics from our study, some of the subjects used may have what we call subclinical diabetes, meaning their blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but are not high enough to be classified as diabetes,” Watkins said.

    ·         Poor diets. Obese women often consume foods that are high in harmful substances (hydrogenated trans fatty acids) and low in healthy nutrients (folic acid and phytochemicals). What’s more, overweight women seeking to shed pounds quickly may do more harm than good by choosing an unhealthy, restrictive diet that deprives the body of essential nutrients.   

    Equally unsettling, this news comes at a time when more than 60 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, according to a now-famous report from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office. And this trend isn’t expected to thin down anytime soon: One in eight American children is obese, more than double the number from just 20 years ago.

    “There is no immediate solution to the obesity epidemic in this country,” admits Watkins. “Prevention efforts must start early, and they must be promoted by parents, schools and health care providers. After all, obese children are very likely to become obese adults.”