Is it safe to consume junk food in pregnancy?

Pregnancy craving might make it difficult for you to resist junk food. However, researchers have suggested that regular consumption of junk food can result in pregnancy complications and affect the future health of the baby. Therefore, if you are used to consuming such food before conception, pregnancy is the time to change the food preferences.

This would be beneficial not only during pregnancy but also for better health and wellbeing in the future both for you and the child. A healthy food habit during pregnancy could be the foundation stone of a healthy food habit and preferences of the child.

What is junk food?

These are fried and/ or processed food with very high calorie, salt and/ or sugar (often unrefined) content. They usually have no or very minimal nutritional value.

They do not contain necessary protein, fibre, vitamins and other micronutrients required for good health and wellbeing.

Commonly they are very rich in carbohydrate and fat. Therefore, regular consumption of junk food can make you prone to develop Type 2 Diabetes, Obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

They might also contain artificial flavours and food preservatives for delicious taste and longer shelf-life. Some of them can be harmful to health too when consumed in higher quantities.

Junk food is often slow to stimulate the brain’s satiety centre. As a result, people tend to consume them in big portion sizes. Due to its taste and appearance, many people often eat them quite frequently.

Junk food has grown popularity all across the world and all age groups, especially among young age groups. They are often cheap, easily available, convenient, and on-the-go food. Therefore, it is not surprising why this is so popular in this busy modern life.

Moreover, as a result of huge marketing and advertising, its presence is quite significant in people’s mindset. Without a doubt, junk food is a serious health concern globally.

In this context, it is important to know about fast food and processed food.

Fast food is quicker to prepare and served when ordered. Apart from some exceptions (such as some healthy salads), fast food is usually of junk food category.

Processed food, on the other hand, are those which has been altered in some way. After manufacturing, they have packaged in boxes or cans and lines the supermarket shelves.

Although some processed foods are healthy (such as frozen fruits or pasteurised milk, or fortified grains), many of them could be detrimental to health. Therefore, utmost care should be taken when picking them up from the supermarket shelves or buying online.

Can the consumption of junk food before pregnancy cause a problem?

Some studies have revealed that the consumption of junk food can cause delay and difficulty in conceiving.

Moreover, pre-pregnancy consumption of fast food in large quantities may increase the risk of gestational diabetes.

Why junk food could be harmful during pregnancy?

1. Nutritional needs:

Good nutrition is the key to health and wellbeing during pregnancy. Junk food does not meet the nutritional requirements of pregnancy and breastfeeding.

2. Gestational weight gain:

Consuming large quantities of junk food may result in excessive gestational weight gain. This increases the risk of pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, and body image issues.

3. Food-borne disease:

Exposure to poorly-cooked food and processed food can cause food poisoning and food-borne infections such as listeriosis.

How junk food affects the baby?

It is now well-known that events during pregnancy can shape and contribute future health of the child through a process known as ‘Fetal Programming’.

Consumption of junk food by the mother during pregnancy can contribute to future health problems of the child in the following way:

1. Altered food habit:

Research on animal models has shown that when high-fat and high sugar diets, then the babies develop a preference for such food later in life. The exact cause is not known but some changes in the baby’s brain neurological networks (such as the ‘reward system’) and metabolism could be responsible.

2. Risk of asthma and allergies:

Studies have shown that a very high sugar intake during pregnancy increases the risk of childhood asthma and allergy.

Therefore, added sugar (by the manufacturer or the consumer) in the food should be avoided or kept to a minimum during pregnancy. This includes sugar naturally present in food such as honey and unsweetened fruit juices.

3. Acrylamide exposure:

Research indicated that junk food during pregnancy can increase the risk of acrylamide exposure to the fetus. This is believed to cause intrauterine growth restriction. Acrylamide is also thought to be carcinogenic.

Acrylamide is formed when the food rich high in starch (for example, potatoes and bread) and baked/ cooked at very high temperatures. Therefore, could be present in food like potato chips and fries.

On a different note, acrylamide could be present in cigarette smoke.

4. Mental health problems:

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that consuming unhealthy food during pregnancy increases mental health conditions of the child.

5. Increased fetal weight (‘Big Baby’ or ‘Macrosomia’):

Pregnant mother’s diet high in junk food may result in increased fetal weight at birth. It is well known that high infant birth weight can slow down labour and increase chances of medical interventions (such as Caesarean section and instrumental deliveries).

Advice for pregnant women:

Pregnancy is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the food habits and change to a healthy lifestyle. This would be beneficial not only to reduce pregnancy complications but also to reduce health problems for the child.

1. Avoid junk food whenever possible and should not be a part of regular meals.

2. Check the labels before buying processed food online or from the supermarkets.

For example, avoid buying canned food with syrup, salted water and brine. Rather look for the canned food with natural juice, plain/spring water or olive oil. Opt for low sugar and low-fat options, such as fat-free yoghurt and food with no added sugar. Avoid ready meals/ pre-cooked meals.

3. Avoid processed/ undercooked meat:

Take care when buying sandwiches/ burgers as they may contain undercooked meat or soft cheese. They can increase the risk of listeria.

4. Have healthy snacks.

5. If you still decide to have a high-calorie food then try to prepare this at home and keep the salt, sugar, fat and carbohydrate low. You do not have control over the ingredients of take-away food.