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A Weighty Issue

Overweight and obese pregnant women have higher rates of preterm birth. Heavy pregnant women are more likely to suffer from gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension) -- both of which increase the odds of preterm labor. A March of Dimes report, Nutrition Today Matters Tomorrow, points to a direct link between the soaring rates of obesity among women of childbearing age and the increased rate of premature birth, which has risen 23 percent since the early 1980s. Prematurity puts infants at significantly increased risk of a host of lifelong health problems: developmental delays, chronic lung disease, and cerebral palsy to name a few. In fact, preterm birth is the number one cause of neonatal death in the first month of life.

Infants born to heavy women are more likely to suffer from birth defects. Research from the March of Dimes found that overweight and obese women were reported to be 30 to 40 percent more likely than healthy-weight women to deliver a baby with a major birth defect, in particular a neural tube defect, which affects the brain (anencephaly) or the spine (spina bifida).

Not only that, a study of 900 California women published last November in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that obese women who ate a large amount of high-glycemic foods (such as white bread, cookies, sugary cereals, and soft drinks) around the time of conception were at greater risk of having a baby with a neural tube birth defect. "Prior research has indicated that obese women have a twofold increased risk of these defects," notes Suzan Carmichael, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program, which conducted the study. Their results showed that obese women who reported eating the largest amounts of high-glycemic foods during early pregnancy had four times the risk of neural tube defects.