Pregnant women who drink water and eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and whole-grain cereals can reduce their chances of having a premature birth, new research suggests.
Experts found women with such a diet were less likely to give birth before 37 weeks.
Those who followed a more “traditional” diet – of potatoes, cooked vegetables and fish – could also cut their risk.
Figures show around 6 per cent of births in Scotland are classed as premature (before 37 weeks) with rates higher than in the 1970s but falling since around 2003.
Factors such as smoking, drug use and deprivation have been linked to a higher risk of premature birth.
For the latest study, the researchers studied data for 66,000 pregnant women on a Norwegian study, analysing pre-term births between 2002 and 2008. Out of these births, 3,505 (5.3 per cent) delivered their babies early.
Writing online in the British Medical Journal, the researchers found that women who followed a so-called “prudent” diet rich in fibre, fruit and vegetables had around a 12 per cent reduced risk of premature delivery, especially if they were having their first baby, compared to other women. Risks were also cut by around 9 per cent for those who favoured the more “traditional” diet.
There was no link found between premature birth and eating a “Western” diet of salty and sweet snacks, white bread, desserts and processed meats.
The authors, from health organisations in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, said although the findings could not establish a causal effect, they supported dietary advice to pregnant women to eat a balanced diet including vegetables, fruit, whole grains and fish, and to drink enough water. “Our results indicate that increasing the intake of foods associated with a prudent dietary pattern is more important than totally excluding processed food, fast food, junk food, and snacks,” they added.
The researchers said a diet with a high intake of vegetables, fruit and berries rich in antioxidants and vitamins could reduce inflammation, which might be one explanation for the reduced risk of premature delivery.
In an accompanying editorial, Professor Lucilla Poston, of King’s College London, said health professionals “would therefore be well advised to reinforce the message that pregnant women eat a healthy diet”.
Jane Munro, of the Royal College of Midwives, said the study added to information already given to pregnant women.
“This study is a useful addition to the evidence that healthy eating and ensuring women drink enough water can have a significant impact and help to reduce the potentially serious problem of pre-term birth.
NHS guidance for pregnant women in Scotland stresses it is important to make sure that diet provides women with enough energy and nutrients for their baby to grow and develop.
“Eating a healthy diet will provide your baby with all she needs to develop as well as helping you to keep in the best of health during your pregnancy,” the advice says.