For pregnant women, and those planning to conceive, a healthy diet is an important consideration, not only for the mother’s health, but also the health of her unborn child. While supermarket aisles are lined with processed foods that have ingredient lists made up of chemical names, a culprit from an entirely different section of the supermarket, red meat, has been identified by scientists as having a potentially harmful effect on pregnant women. Research published in the journal Diabetes Care has shown that red meat is linked with a higher rate of gestational diabetes in pregnant women, which poses risks to the health of the mother and the baby. Gestational diabetes may occur in women that have not been at risk for diabetes previously. It’s estimated that gestational diabetes affects around 18% of expecting mothers. When gestational diabetes occurs, the mother’s pancreas works overtime to produce insulin, but the insulin does not lower the body’s blood glucose levels as it should. Insulin does not cross the placenta barrier to the developing child, but glucose and other nutrients do. Extra blood glucose in the mother may then lead to high blood glucose levels in the newborn child. Newborns with high blood glucose at birth are at high risk for macrosomnia, where the baby’s pancreas must make extra insulin to lower blood glucose levels, and since the baby makes more energy than it needs to grow and develop, the excess is stored as fat.
Macrosomnia increases the baby’s risk for breathing problems, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Scientists have not determined the exact mechanism of how red meat increases the risk. But based on current evidence it’s clear that women who are pregnant or planning to conceive should reduce or eliminate red meat in favor of a diet high in vegetable protein and nuts. Just over half a serving of nuts per day has been shown to reduce the risk of gestational diabetes by 40%. The study showed a 29% lower risk of gestational diabetes when replacing red meat with poultry, a 33% reduction of risk for fish, 51% for nuts, and 33% for legumes. Nuts appeared to have the biggest impact on reducing the risk of gestational diabetes out of the study’s alternative sources of protein. Nuts have a healthful nutritional profile; in addition to being a good source of vegetable protein, nuts are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, fiber, and magnesium and have a relatively low glycemic index.
If the link to gestational diabetes isn’t convincing enough, researchers at Oregon State University have recently identified novel compounds produced by specific chemical reactions, such as in the process of grilling meat, that are hundreds of times more mutagenic than their parent compounds known as carcinogens. Mutagens are chemicals that can cause DNA damage in cells that in turn can cause cancer. The compounds are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and they form naturally as a result of any type of combustion, from a wood stove or charcoal grill, to an automobile engine or coal-fired power plant. PAHs become even more of a health risk when they chemically interact with nitrogen and become ‘nitrated,’ termed as NPAHs, and the NPAHs identified by the researchers were previously unknown to exist. There has been a lot of research previously on the presence of carcinogens due to exposing any type of meat to an open flame. However, it remains unknown whether the levels of these compounds are high enough in grilled food to pose a health risk. Preliminary research has shown links between PAH exposure and colon, pancreatic and prostate cancer. It’s important to note that grilled vegetables do not produce PAHs—another win for our beloved veggies. With two compelling reasons to focus your diet more heavily on protein-rich vegetables and nuts, make it your resolution in 2014 to pay closer attention to what you eat—whether you’re expecting or not.