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Gluten free, low-carb diets could pose serious health risks to unborn babies

Low-carbohydrate and gluten free diets could be linked to serious birth defects, according to a new study.

A study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Birth Defects Research is the first to directly examine the relationship between low carbohydrate intake and having children with a possibly fatal neural tube defect, lead author Tania Desrosiers said.          

Researchers analyzed data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study from 1,740 mothers of infants, stillbirths, and terminations with anencephaly (missing parts of brain and skull) or spina bifida (a spinal cord defect); and 9,545 mothers of live born infants without a birth defect conceived between 1998 and 2011. They found women with low carbohydrate intake are 30 percent more likely to have babies with neural tube defects as opposed to moms who didn't.         

Women in that group were more likely to be older, white, educated and have a higher household income.

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Low-carb intake was defined as the lowest 10 percent of the group, roughing lining up with limits imposed by low-carb and gluten-free diets. What's important to note is women who choose to consume less carbohydrates might also be opting to eat less folic acid. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated in 1998 that all cereals and grains must be fortified with folic acid.)         

At this time, researchers can't provide a specific daily intake that is healthiest for pregnant women, but believe this research is a start to understanding more about an unborn baby's health.          

The only concrete finding is maternal diet plays an extremely important role in fetal development, Desrosiers said. 

"I don’t want women to panic when they read this," Desrosiers said. "For the scientific community, we need to look into this deeper. For the public, women should have a conversation with their doctor about special dietary practices."         

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored the study, also authored by Anna Maria Siega-Riz, Bridget Mosley and Robert Meyer.        

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