Embryo smaller if the woman eats a lot of ultra-processed food before and during pregnancy, an effect comparable to smoking

Women who eat a lot of ultra-processed food before and during their pregnancy have a smaller embryo in the womb. This is evident from research from Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. The effect on the unborn child is similar to smoking.

Ultra-processed foods are foods that often consist of many ingredients and are of little use to your body. Think of biscuits, chips, but also white bread, for example. 60 to 80 percent of the products in the supermarket are ultra-processed.

Greater chance of disease

There have been concerns about ultra-processed foods for some time. For example, previous scientific research has shown that eating highly processed foods increases the risk of colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and even death.

Thanks to new research from Erasmus MC, we now know that these types of foods are not only unhealthy for mothers-to-be, but also for unborn babies.


Ultra-processed foods

Highly or ultra-processed foods consist (almost) exclusively of substances that have been created chemically. Think of packaged and long-lasting products such as sweet and salty snacks, sauces, soft drinks, but also ‘fresh’ products such as ready meals and fast food.
It is estimated that 10 to 50 percent of what we eat in Europe consists of this type of ultra-processed food. You can recognize highly processed products by the (long) list of ingredients on the label. Commonly used ingredients include sugar, refined flour, palm oil (and other fats rich in saturated fatty acids), salt and all kinds of E numbers.

700 pregnancies followed

The hospital in Rotterdam has followed a total of 700 pregnancies. On the basis of a questionnaire, the women indicated exactly what they ate before and during pregnancy.

The researchers also tracked the growth of the embryos and the weight of the babies from head to torso. A 10 percent increase in eating ultra-processed foods was found to have a significant effect on the unborn child.

Decreased growth of the embryo

“Then you see that there are more women who eat a lot of ultra-processed food, and they all have a somewhat smaller embryo,” says Lenie van Rossem, nutrition expert and epidemiologist at Erasmus MC. “And you see that in women who eat less ultra-processed food, the embryo is slightly larger on average.”

Van Rossem conducted the research and concludes that eating ultra-processed food may be associated with stunted growth in unborn babies. “That you can see it so early in life, it shocked me.”

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Other effects on the embryo

Data from the 700 pregnant women have been corrected for common other factors affecting the embryo. “We thought, is it really the ultra-processed food that has such a big effect on the unborn child?” explains the researcher.

“Because women who eat a more unhealthy diet also smoke and drink more often and have less health knowledge. We took that into account and we still saw that the effect of ultra-processed food on the embryo remained,” says Van Rossum.

Effect similar to smoking

She compares it to the effect of smoking on an unborn child: “We have also looked at what smoking does to the fetus. We know that women who smoke also have a smaller fetus, and we see that the effect of ​​ultra-processed food is moving in. that direction.”

Reduced embryonic growth in the first trimester of pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth or low birth weight, warns the researcher. “I think it’s good that pregnant women realize that they can affect their baby’s health very early in pregnancy.”

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Need more research

More research is needed to find out why the embryo lags behind in growth. “It was an epidemiological study, they are statistical correlations. We still don’t know exactly which aspect of ultra-processed food is responsible for the effect on embryo growth,” says Van Rossem.

But it is certain that ultra-processed food not only makes you fat, but also makes you sick and has an effect on unborn babies in the womb. “We’re seeing consistent health effects, so there’s really something going on.”

See the full report here.

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