Mediterranean diet 'reduces birth defects'

The Mediterranean diet has already been credited with increasing life expectancy levels in southern Europe. Now research has revealed that it may also contribute to the health of the unborn child in the womb.

According to the first comprehensive estimate of the global burden of birth defects, France has the lowest incidence rate in the world, and researchers believe the Mediterranean diet could be the reason.

A high daily intake of leafy vegetables, high in folic acid and a staple of most Mediterranean cooking regimes, ensures that France, Italy and Spain fare significantly better than other nations in avoiding defects such as congenital heart problems and spina bifida. The French rate of 39.7 babies born with birth defects per 1,000 live births is less than half that in the Sudan, which has the highest rate in the world, at 82 per 1,000 live births. The UK ranks ninth in the table, behind Spain and Italy, with 43.8 affected babies per 1,000 live births.

Almost 250,000 babies are born with inherited birth defects each year in Europe, but the toll could be reduced if their mothers ate more fruit and vegetables as in Mediterranean countries, researchers say.

The Global Report on Birth Defects published by the American charity March of Dimes says eight million affected babies are born each year, of whom 3.3 million die before they reach the age of five, a greater toll than from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

A further 3.2 million of those who survive may be mentally and physically disabled for life. The total does not include the one million babies born with defects caused by exposure to environmental or chemical agents in the womb, including infections, bringing the total of affected babies to nine million, the researchers say.

The problem has been ignored by governments despite the availability of simple public health measures which could reduce the toll, the report says. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes, said: "Our report identifies for the first time the severe and previously hidden global toll of birth defects. This is a serious, vastly under-appreciated and under-funded public health problem."

The commonest inherited birth defects are congenital heart problems and neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Rates are up to twice as high in the poorest countries compared with the richest.

Professor Bernadette Modell of the Royal Free and University College Medical School said boosting folic acid levels in pregnant women was the single most important element to prevent defects.

Folic acid is contained in green leafy vegetables and prevents spina bifida. In the UK, pregnant women are prescribed folic acid supplements, but only half take them. "Fortifying flour with folic acid globally should be a priority," Professor Modell said. "They have done it in North America and they are seeing a fall in defects."

The incidence of birth defects including Down syndrome, spina bifida and congenital heart problems is up to 16 per cent lower in southern Europe than northern Europe.

Professor Modell said: "They are highest in the north and east and lowest in France, Italy and Spain. The Mediterranean diet doesn't just prevent heart disease - it seems to have an effect on birth defects too. It is probably the effect of folic acid, but it is quite possible there are multiple vitamin effects."

In the UK birth defects have fallen by 70 per cent over the past 40 years as a result of better screening and prevention. About 30,000 affected babies are born in Britain each year.

News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Associate Recrutiment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

    Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

    £120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

    PMLD Teacher

    Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence