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Health Guidelines Ignored Before Pregnancy

Study Shows Many Women Don't Follow Guidelines on Diet and Nutrition
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 13, 2009 -- Few women follow lifestyle and nutritional guidelines before becoming pregnant, even when pregnancy is contemplated to some degree, a new study shows.

Researchers at the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton wanted to find out whether women follow such guidelines before becoming pregnant, since good health is important before pregnancy.

They interviewed 12,445 non-pregnant women 20 to 34, obtaining information on diet, physical activity, and whether they smoked, drank alcohol, or used nutritional supplements.

A total of 238 became pregnant within three months of being interviewed; researchers compared them with those who didn't become pregnant.

Among the women who became pregnant, 44% had taken any folic acid supplements in the three months before the interview; only 5.5% had taken 400 micrograms of folic acid a day. Daily folic acid intake of 400 micrograms is recommended to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

When pregnant women were interviewed at 11 weeks of gestation, 93% reported taking some folic acid and 12% reported taking at least 400 micrograms a day over the previous three months.

Although the women who became pregnant were slightly less likely to smoke than those who did not become pregnant, the difference was not significant.

Diet and Exercise

Women in both groups were equally likely to get five or more portions of vegetables and fruit per day (53%); a smaller percentage of those who became pregnant had engaged in any strenuous exercise within the three months prior to their interviews compared to the women who didn't get pregnant.

When interviewed before pregnancy, 23% of the 238 women who became pregnant said they did not expect to try to become pregnant in the following year.

In this "unplanned" group, only one who became pregnant complied with the alcohol and folic acid recommendations.

However, among those thought to be at least contemplating pregnancy, six women had complied.

"Our data show limited evidence of changes in health behaviors before pregnancy," the researchers write, issuing a call for greater publicity promoting pre-pregnancy guidelines. "Substantial rates of unplanned pregnancies mean that greater efforts are needed to improve the nutrition and lifestyles in women of childbearing age."

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