This site is intended for health professionals only

Modern diets mean many pregnant women are deficient in essential nutrients

Modern diets mean many pregnant women are deficient in essential nutrients

Nine out of ten pregnant women in high-income countries are lacking key vitamins needed for themselves and their unborn babies, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Southampton found that modern diets are not giving women the essential nutrients necessary for healthy pregnancies or the wellbeing of unborn infants.

Nutrients that are essential for developing foetuses in the womb, such as vitamins B12, B6 and D, folic acid and riboflavin, were missing in many of the 1,700 women surveyed.

Scientists warn that the situation is a serious concern and could worsen as more women turn to plant-based foods.

The findings are published in PLOS Medicine.

The researchers assessed 1,729 pregnant women in high-income countries, including the UK, New Zealand and Singapore. All the women were between the ages of 18 and 38 at conception, and the researchers followed many of the participants through subsequent pregnancies.

Every woman who participated in the study had a deficiency in one or more vitamins considered essential for pregnancy. Ninety per cent of women were found to have marginal or low levels of folate, riboflavin, vitamins B12 and D around the time of conception. Many of the women developed vitamin B6 deficiency in late pregnancy.

Professor Keith Godfrey, from the University of Southampton and lead author of the study, said: ‘The push to reduce our dependence on meat and dairy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions is likely to further deplete expecting mothers of vital nutrients, which could have lasting effects on unborn children.’

‘Our study shows that almost every woman trying to conceive had insufficient levels of one or more vitamins, and this figure is only going to get worse as the world moves towards plant-based diets.

People think that nutrient deficiency only affects people in underdeveloped countries – but it is also affecting the majority of women living in high-income nations.’

The researchers suggest that expectant mothers should be given over-the-counter multivitamins in addition to folic acid supplementation which is currently taken prior to conception and during the first trimester.

Professor Wayne Cutfield, from the University of Auckland and co-author of the study, said: ‘The wellbeing of a mother ahead of conceiving and during a pregnancy has a direct influence on the health of the infant, their lifelong physical development, and ability to learn.’

As many women take up diets with less meat and dairy, the researchers state that more information and support needs to be available for women, including specific advice about nutrient-rich foods and appropriate supplements.


See how our symptom tool can help you make better sense of patient presentations
Click here to search a symptom