A new study found a 22 percent lower risk of preeclampsia among women who followed a Mediterranean-style diet more closely during pregnancy. Photo: pastel100/Pixabay
The Mediterranean-style diet is known to help protect the heart, and now new research suggests that it may also reduce the risk of life-threatening preeclampsia in mothers-to-be.
Marked by a sudden rise in blood pressure, protein in the urine or other problems during pregnancy, preeclampsia can cause serious health problems for both mother and baby if left untreated. The condition can also increase a woman’s risk of heart disease later in life.
The traditional heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats, such as olive oil.
This new study wasn’t designed to understand how, or even if, this diet would lower the risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women; it simply found an association. But the researchers have some theories about how it might do so.
Some studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular function,” or blood vessel flexibility, said study author Dr. Anoum Minhas. She is a fellow in cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery and advanced imaging at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. When the blood vessels around the uterus constrict during pregnancy, it can lead to high blood pressure.
“This diet also has the potential to reduce weight gain during pregnancy,” Minhas says. Women who gain a lot of weight during pregnancy may be at a higher risk of developing preeclampsia.
The study focused on more than 8,500 women in the Boston area who were part of a broader pregnancy, infant and child health study. Some were at risk for preterm birth, which overlaps with preeclampsia. Black women made up nearly half of the study participants.
Researchers gave each woman a score based on how well she adhered to the Mediterranean diet.
In all, 10 percent developed preeclampsia. But the study found that women who followed the Mediterranean-style diet more closely during pregnancy had a 22 percent lower risk, and that this risk reduction was even greater among black women who did so. Black women have a higher risk of developing preeclampsia.
“The greater reduction in risk of preeclampsia among black women who adhered most to the Mediterranean diet further supports the idea that this intervention may be effective for women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Minhas said.
She and her colleagues plan to continue combing through the data to see how this diet can reduce the risk of preeclampsia. They also hope to conduct a randomized controlled trial comparing the Mediterranean diet with another dietary regimen among women at risk for preeclampsia.
There are very few safe treatments for preeclampsia that also produce meaningful benefits. The only treatment available is childbirth, which often leads to preterm delivery.
“This is one of the reasons we are excited about the results, because the Mediterranean diet is beneficial and safe for both mom and baby,” Minhas said.
Until now, women at risk for preeclampsia were usually treated with baby aspirin and monitored closely. The researchers did not track whether the women in the study took aspirin daily.
The study results were published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Dr. Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Huntington Hospital in Huntington, N.Y., reviewed the findings.
He said pre-eclampsia is a major health problem among pregnant women in the United States.
“It disproportionately affects women of color and those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds,” Kramer said.
These women often do not follow a healthy, balanced eating regimen due to lack of opportunity or income and education about diet, he said.
“The obstetrician community has long believed that a healthy diet consisting of fresh foods, low salt, fruits, vegetables, reduced red meat, nuts, legumes and healthy oils will benefit both the pregnant woman and the fetus, and this study supports the importance of encouraging pregnant women, especially in this study population, to adhere to this Mediterranean-style diet,” Kramer said.
The American Heart Association has more information on the Mediterranean diet.