Low-Carbohydrate Diets Can Increase Risk of Neural Tube Defects

Folic acid isn’t the only think expectant mothers need to get plenty of during their pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

According to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, women who reduce or eliminate carbohydrates, often due to popular low-carb diets, have an increased risk of having babies with neural tube defects.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Birth Defects Research’ on January 25, found that women with low carbohydrate intake are 30 percent more likely to have babies with neural tube defects – like spina bifida and anencephaly -- when compared with women who do not restrict their carbohydrate intake.

Restricting carbohydrate intake often means avoiding the food products that are fortified with folic acid, such as bread, cereal, and pasta. In fact, low-carb diets are associated with a reduced intake of a number of micronutrients.

"Women who restrict carbohydrates may have suboptimal folate status and subsequently may be at higher risk of having an NTD-affected pregnancy,” hypothesized study scientists.

Because of the importance of folic acid in the prevention of NTDs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began enriching all grains and cereals with 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of product back in 1998. The change has reduced the number of NTD cases in the U.S. by 1,300 a year.

The study analyzed data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, which spanned 1998-2011 and included 11,285 pregnant women from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Of these women, 1,740 had infants, stillbirths or terminations with anencephaly or spina bifida while 9,545 had live born infants without birth defects. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.