Although the government outlines healthy dietary recommendations for all Americans and there are countless magazine articles out there that detail the best foods to eat before you get pregnant, a new study found that many women in the United States lack proper nutrition shortly before their first pregnancy — particularly low-income and minority women. The study's findings come a day after President Donald Trump submitted his budget proposal to Congress, which drastically cuts into existing nutrition and health programs, and researchers noted that while more doctors’ appointments and nutrition counseling could improve these women’s food choices, policymakers should also step in to help soon-to-be expectant mothers make healthier dietary choices.
The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on Friday, found that black, Hispanic, and less-educated women consumed a less nutritious diet than well-educated white women in the weeks before they got pregnant with their first child. The researchers from University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health also noted that although there were apparent socioeconomic and racial differences in their findings, no woman included in the study totally followed or met the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are published by the health department every five years.
"Unlike many other pregnancy and birth risk factors, diet is something we can improve," Lisa Bodnar, the lead author of the study and associate professor and vice chair of research in Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology, wrote in a press release. "While attention should be given to improving nutritional counseling at doctor appointments, overarching societal and policy changes that help women to make healthy dietary choices may be more effective and efficient."
The researchers analyzed questionnaires answered by 7,511 women who were between six and 14 weeks pregnant and were enrolled in The Nulliparous Pregnancy Outcomes Study: Monitoring Mothers to Be. The women answered questions about their dietary habits during the three months around conception, which were then compared to the Healthy Eating Index-2010, a measure of dietary quality that looks into 12 key aspects, such as empty calories from alcohol and solid fats as well as intake of salt intake and refined grains like pasta and white rice.
The higher the education level, the higher the women scored on the questionnaire. Nearly a quarter of white women scored the highest, while 14 percent of Hispanic women and 4.6 percent of black mothers fell into the same bracket. However, at all levels of education, including graduate degrees, black women had the lowest average scores.
The main calorie culprits were sugar-sweetened beverages, pasta dishes, grain desserts, sodas, and alcohol. As for iron and folate intake, which are key nutrients for developing fetuses, all groups of women consumed green salad and processed cereals.
"Our findings mirror national nutrition and dietary trends. The diet quality gap among non-pregnant people is thought to be a consequence of many factors, including access to and price of healthy foods, knowledge of a healthy diet, and pressing needs that may take priority over a healthy diet," Bodnar said in the press release.
The authors noted that more research needs to be done on how pre-pregnancy diets affect birth outcomes and if they do, then societal and political changes need to be explored further so everyone is more likely to consume a healthy and nutritious diet. As New York Magazine reported, there is a "proven need for better nutritional assistance for pregnant women" and Trump's budget cuts to programs like the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could do more harm to the health of the many women who rely on it.