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Ultra-Processed Foods and Pregnancy Health: Understanding the Risks and Making Informed Choices

During pregnancy, a woman’s nutritional needs increase to support the growth and development of her baby. However, the modern diet is increasingly dominated by ultra-processed foods, which can pose significant risks to both maternal and fetal health.

Understanding the potential consequences of ultra-processed food consumption during pregnancy is crucial for making informed dietary choices and supporting optimal health outcomes.

Defining Ultra-Processed Foods

Food processing generally refers to any action that alters food from its natural state, such as drying, freezing, milling, canning, or adding salt, sugar, fat, or other additives for flavour or preservation.

Ultra-processed foods are not simply foods that have been modified by processing, but rather edible products formulated from food-derived substances, along with additives that heighten their appeal and durability.

Ultra-processed foods are heavily industrially processed products that have undergone multiple alterations, often involving a combination of techniques such as hydrogenation, extrusion, and fortification.

These foods are typically low in fibre, nutrients, and water, while being high in unhealthy fats, added sugar, and salt. Examples of ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, processed meats, and ready-made meals. They are the foods that typically can’t be “created in your kitchen”.

Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Maternal Health

Excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods during pregnancy can lead to a range of health concerns for mothers, including:

  • Excessive gestational weight gain (GWG): Ultra-processed foods are often high in calories and low in satiety (being filling), contributing to excessive weight gain during pregnancy. GWG is associated with increased risks of gestational diabetes (GDM), preeclampsia, and postpartum complications.
  • Increased risk of GDM: GDM is a condition characterised by high blood glucose levels during pregnancy. Ultra-processed foods, particularly those high in added sugar, can make management of BGLs in GDM harder.
  • Elevated blood pressure: Ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of sodium, which may contribute to elevated blood pressure during pregnancy. This can increase the risk of preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication.
  • Nutrient deficiencies: Ultra-processed foods are often low in essential nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which are crucial for maternal health and fetal development.

Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Fetal Health

The harmful effects of ultra-processed foods can extend beyond maternal health and impact fetal development as well:

  • Increased risk of fetal growth restriction (FGR): FGR is a condition characterized by slowed fetal growth. Ultra-processed foods, particularly those low in protein and essential nutrients, may increase the risk of FGR.
  • Increased risk of obesity in offspring: Children born to mothers with high ultra-processed food intake during pregnancy may have an increased risk of developing obesity later in life. 

Recommendations for Limiting Ultra-Processed Food Consumption

From Australian national dietary surveys we know that over one-third of Australians energy intake (kilojoules) come from ultra-processed (i.e. junk food and drink).  That’s one bite in every three.

Given the potential risks associated with ultra-processed food consumption during pregnancy, healthcare providers recommend that pregnant women prioritise a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods.

Here are some practical tips for limiting ultra-processed foods:

  • Focus on whole foods: Fill your plate with nutrient-rich whole foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  • Cook at home: Prepare meals at home using fresh ingredients whenever possible. This gives you control over the ingredients and reduces the temptation to rely on packaged, heavily processed foods.
  • Read food labels carefully: Pay attention to food labels and identify ingredients that indicate ultra-processing. These include preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours.
  • Limit sugary drinks: Avoid or significantly reduce consumption of sugary drinks, including soft drinks, fruit juices, and sweetened coffee beverages. Make water your drink of choice.
  • Choose whole-grain over refined grains: Opt for whole-grain products like whole-wheat bread, biscuits and cereals, and quinoa over refined grains like white bread and processed biscuits and cereals.
  • Snack on healthy alternatives: Replace unhealthy snacks like chips and biscuits with nutrient-rich options like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yoghurt.
  • Seek professional guidance: Consult with an accredited practising dietitian for personalised advice on limiting ultra-processed foods and creating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet during pregnancy.

Ultra-processed foods, while convenient and appealing, pose significant risks to both maternal and fetal health during pregnancy.

By prioritising whole, unprocessed foods and limiting ultra-processed options, pregnant women can promote their own well-being and ensure optimal health outcomes for their developing babies.

Remember, making informed dietary choices during pregnancy is an investment in your health as well as the health and wellbeing of your baby.

Do you need help in making changes to your dietary routines?

Our specialist maternal health dietitians are able to tailor a program to support you to adapt guideline recommendations to your lifestyle and preferences. If you need support, please make an appointment to help you achieve your goals.









IMAGE CREDIT: Anne Sprat/ Unsplash

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Stack of four donuts with pink icing and covered in coloured sprinkles