Obesity and Pregnancy
by Nicole Avena, PhD 

Nicole Avena, PhD

We have known for quite some time now that maternal weight can have drastic effects on the health outcomes of a child. But what about how your weight affects your ability to get pregnant, and once you get pregnant, how do you maintain an optimal weight to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby? Overweight and obesity rates continue to rise in the United States and more than half of all pregnant women in the U.S. are affected by excess weight or obesity, where one in five were affected by obesity at the start of pregnancy. A BMI that is 25-29.9 is considered “overweight,” whereas 30 or higher is obesity.

Being overweight (a BMI of 25-29.9) or affected by obesity (a BMI 30 or higher) at the start of and/or during pregnancy not only puts the mom at risk for health problems, but the baby is also at a higher risk for certain conditions and complications. Obesity may even be detrimental to your fertility, inhibiting normal ovulation and increasing the risk for unsuccessful in vitro fertilization. Some potential problems for the pregnant and overweight mom include a higher risk for preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, miscarriage, postpartum hemorrhage, infections, anxiety and depression, and a need for a C-section. Maternal obesity and/or overeating can lead to a baby with high birth weight and increased risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic disorders, psychological disorders (ADHD, depression, autism, anxiety), and a potential effect on the child’s intelligence. The rise in autism in the United States has been right alongside obesity, which may be the result of consuming too much and a high-fat diet leading up to and during pregnancy.

However, beginning a pregnancy overweight or with obesity does not mean you will have any complications at all or that you should give up hope on having a healthy baby. Before getting pregnant there are a couple of things you may want to do. First of all, think about what might be causing any weight gain or preventing weight loss–do you get enough exercise? Are you consuming too many calories? Do you tend to eat out often? Focusing on one or two aspects of your lifestyle and changing them for the better could drastically improve your chances of delivering a healthy baby while maintaining your own health. A good place to start may be to start increasing your activity on a daily basis. This could be anything that gets you moving around from a walk at lunch time, more bathroom and stretching breaks throughout the day, to cleaning your apartment or walking your dog for just 10 more minutes every day.

When it comes to food, it is important to shift your focus toward a pregnancy-friendly way of eating and maximize your intake of important nutrients that will help you keep your weight in check to support a healthy pregnancy. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Increase your intake of leafy greens. Leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, spinach, and dandelion leaves are excellent sources of folate–a vital nutrient for a developing baby. There is a clear link between low folate and birth defects in babies. Folate is sensitive to heat, so try to eat some of these veggies raw (like in a salad). Leafy greens like spinach and kale are also a good source of calcium, fiber, and phytonutrients.
  • Consume fatty fish at least twice a week from “safe fish” such as wild caught salmon or canned light tuna. You could also reach for eggs in addition or instead, as both are great sources of DHA, an essential omega 3 fatty acid for the baby’s cognitive and vision development. Both contain vitamin D as well, which helps prevent skeletal abnormalities and ensures proper bone growth. In addition, eggs provide choline, an important nutrient during the early stages of pregnancy.
  • Limit your coffee and tea intake, as it inhibits the absorption of iron, a mineral needed to make hemoglobin and transport oxygen throughout your body (and the baby’s body).
  • Before getting pregnant, there is no better time than the present to cut down on alcohol consumption, intake of high fat or fried foods, high sugar foods such as soda, and processed foods with added chemicals. Alcohol contributes to weight gain and you don’t want to risk your baby’s life by consuming it while pregnant. Also, if you aren’t sure about what the ingredients are in your food, then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Instead, try to cook more often and increase your intake of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Special thanks to Katherine Bishop, M.S., for her assistance with this post.

About the Author:
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a PhD. in Neuroscience and Psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and books, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the books, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012) and Hedonic Eating (2015), coauthored the popular book of food and addiction called Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed Press), and recently finished her new book, What to Eat When You’re Pregnant, which is available now for presale and in bookstores June 9th. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. To learn more about Dr. Avena, please visit www.drnicoleavena.comtwitter.com/DrNicoleAvena, or www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena.

Disclaimer: This blog post does not reflect the views of the OAC, the National Board of Directors or staff. The OAC does not endorse any merchandise, program or hyperlinks mentioned in this blog post.