NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Moms-to-be can help prevent their babies from developing a serious spinal cord defect by eating a Mediterranean diet, Dutch researchers say.

Dr. Regine P. M. Steegers-Theunissen of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and colleagues found that women who ate more fruit, vegetables, healthy oils, fish and whole grains were less likely to give birth to a child with spina bifida.

Folic acid supplementation has been shown to help prevent this birth defect, in which the spinal cord fails to close completely. Some countries, including the United States, now fortify foods with folate to ensure pregnant women are getting enough of the nutrient. But folate isn’t the whole story, Steegers-Theunissen told Reuters Health. “It’s not only folate which is protective, but it’s the whole diet. It’s the balance of the diet in which folate is an important component.”

In southern Europe, where the Mediterranean diet originated, rates of spina bifida are lower, and the defect is also less common in countries that fortify food with folate, the investigators note in their report.

To investigate whether diet might play a role in spina bifida risk, the researchers studied the diets of 50 women who had given birth to a child with spina bifida and 81 women whose children did not have the birth defect.

Women with the least Mediterranean-like diet were about three times more likely to have had a child with spina bifida, the researchers found. And the more closely a woman’s diet adhered to the Mediterranean pattern, the higher her blood levels of folate and vitamin B12.

In the Netherlands, food is not fortified with folate, Steegers-Theunissen noted in an interview. Some of the women in the study, but not all, were taking folic acid supplements. But when the researchers controlled for the effects of the supplements, as well as body mass index (another known risk factor for having a baby with spina bifida), they found the Mediterranean diet independently reduced spina bifida risk.

SOURCE: BJOG, February 2009.