The Problem With Calling Diet & Exercise C-Section "Risks"

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On Wednesday, researchers from Queen Mary University of London released a new analysis that suggests pregnant people who eat a healthy diet and stay active during pregnancy could lower their risk of having a Cesarean-section. This information is useful, medically, for pregnant women who might want to work with their doctors in case they'd like to lower their chances of having a C-section. But the problem with calling diet and exercise C-section "risks" is that it stigmatizes parents who've had the procedure, as well as the choices people have made during pregnancy.

According to HealthDay, the London researchers analyzed 36 studies of more than 12,500 moms and found that a so-called "healthy lifestyle" during pregnancy reduced the chance of needing a C-section by about 10 percent. Their findings, which were published in BMJ, also showed that a healthy diet and moderate exercise lowered a pregnant person's chances of developing gestational diabetes by 24 percent, as well as curbed weight gain.

Admittedly, these types of studies do give greater insight into pregnancy health. But they are also limited in scope. Study author Shakila Thangaratinam told HealthDay that, although they're able to quantify the impact of "a healthy lifestyle," it's difficult to actually define what that would look like. That's because every pregnant person has different abilities and different needs, thus making a one-size-fits-all approach to pregnancy health largely ineffective. And that'd incredibly important information for both pregnant people and everyone else to keep in mind.

Yet, people too often use this kind of science to justify ableism, fat-shaming, racism, and classism. Exercise, for example, looks differently for someone with a disability, which this research probably didn't take into account simply because of study limitations. As the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability notes, although staying active during pregnancy has shown to have benefits, most disabled pregnant people cannot follow exercise guidelines set for the general population. But rampant ableism means people with disabilities receive the same medical advice given to an able-bodied person, which does nothing to actually meet their health needs.

Then there's the matter of eating healthy. That, too, looks different for everyone, especially when taking race and class into account. Research has shown that racism and classism play into which populations have nutritional foods and fresh fruits and vegetables readily available. According to Johns Hopkins Magazine, Black and Latinx people living in poverty are more likely to live in food deserts — areas that have little access to affordable healthy meals — than their white counterparts. That means a "healthy diet" is not as easy to maintain for some pregnant people as it would be for others. Yet, people take this kind of research and use it to judge pregnant folks who are not keeping the diet that they think is appropriate.

The study also adds to the idea that a C-section is the worst thing that can happen during birth, which makes parents feel fearful and shameful about their deliveries. There was no way I could have avoided having an emergency C-section. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my son's body and he wasn't descending. But I still feel guilt for having a C-section because of the comments that are often made about what constitutes "giving birth," and what makes a "strong body." There's a whole list of ways C-section parents are made to feel guilty about having the procedure, and this research only helps adds to the stigma — however unintentionally.

Of course, every pregnant person should speak with their doctor about what they need to do to maintain a healthy pregnancy. But what that looks like is going to differ from individual-to-individual. And, sometimes, no matter how "healthy" you are, a C-section may be inevitable.