Could a sweet tooth in pregnancy put your baby at risk of developing asthma?

In pregnancy, mums-to-be can feel under immense pressure to do everything in their power to help their unborn baby and give them the best start.  With the endless information readily available, it can be difficult to pick apart the facts from the fiction.  Now new research has shown that pregnant women who eat a diet higher in sugar are more likely to have children who go on to develop asthma.

Asthma is a common condition that affects about 1 in 11 children and 1 in 5 households.  The UK is one of the countries that has the highest rates of asthma symptoms in children in the world.  Someone with asthma has a tendency for their smaller airways in the lung to become more narrow during breathing and can feel short of breath.   This can be caused by a chest infection, stress, pollen and moulds, medicines, smoking, fumes, allergies and exercise (although exercise is still good for the health of those with asthma and is safe as long as their asthma is treated effectively).  The narrowing makes a ‘wheezing’ or whistling sound when the person breathes out.  These symptoms can last hours, days or weeks depending on how they are treated and can sometimes develop into an asthma attack if not treated or the symptoms are severe.

In this research, pregnant women in their third trimester were asked to fill out a diet questionnaire.  Researchers also collected information on the mothers and their offspring from this pregnancy.  This included asking at 7.5 and 14 years after birth whether the child had been diagnosed with asthma and a breathing test was taken by the children at 8.5 years.  They collected results from nearly 9000 sets of mothers and children.

They found that the mothers in the group who had the highest sugar intake were twice as likely to have a child who went on to develop asthma when compared to the mothers in the group with the lowest sugar intake.  The research did not look at soft drink consumption and so they believe the chances of children developing asthma from a higher sugar intake in pregnancy may in fact be higher than this.

Fructose is being labelled as the bad guy as the scientists believe this may be the component of sugary foods and drink to be causing this link.  Fructose is found in fruit juices and is also added to drinks and foods to sweeten them.  It is also added to baked goods to brown their appearance.  They propose that fructose may cause inflammation or affect the immune system and included other research to support this.  However, the research they included showing that fructose may cause inflammation proteins in the blood to increase only looked at a small number of people.

Also, those carrying out the research only looked at the diet of the women in the third trimester and felt that sugar intake is likely to be the same throughout pregnancy.  Given that morning sickness and taste changes can dramatically affect a pregnant woman’s food choices, this may not be accurate.  However, they did ensure other possible related factors did not make the results unreliable including diabetes in pregnancy, sugar intake of the children in the early years, and babies being born prematurely or having a low birth weight.  They do acknowledge that further research is needed to ensure there is a link between a pregnant women’s diet being higher in sugar and the child born being more likely to develop asthma.

The NHS Choices website has useful information on the foods to avoid in pregnancy and eating heathily when pregnant.  The government has more general advice including the importance of staying active, stopping smoking and avoiding alcohol to ensuring you and your baby can have a healthy pregnancy.

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

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