Japanese Moms Dieting While Pregnant – Unhealthy Trend?

Japanese women pregnancy weight
Thin moms bad for baby?

Moms in the U.S. have been getting a talking-to lately about gaining too much weight in pregnancy, but it seems Japanese women might need the opposite advice.

It turns out that Japanese women are more likely to diet when they find out they are pregnant to try to keep their weight down. And in contrast to most developed nations, the birthweight of babies in Japan has been going down over the decades.

A story in Bloomberg last week highlights the trend through the story of one Japanese pregnant mom who was scolded by her doctor and told to keep her weight down (she was a dancer and weighed 112 pounds). She cut out rice from her diet and skipped meals before her doctors appointments.

Apparently it’s not uncommon for doctors in Japan to be strict about weight gain and use much tighter guidelines than the ones we have in the U.S. and Europe. The Japanese health ministry says 15 to 26 pounds is okay for a normal weight woman (in the U.S. it’s 25 to 35 pound). And Japanese women are already much more likely to be thin — with almost a quarter of women in their 20’s being classified as “underweight”.

So what are the possible ramifications of Japanese moms not putting on the pounds? Interestingly, they’re similar to the problems we’re hearing about that come from too much weight gain: Poor nutrition is thought to set up the fetus to expect food to be scarce on the outside — so babies whose moms don’t get enough healthy food are thought to be at risk for type 2 diabetes later in life. In other words, their life inside the womb doesn’t match the one they’ll encounter later in life, and their bodies aren’t programmed to handle more calories.

And in fact, the incidence of type 2 diabetes in children has doubled since the 1970’s. It’s not clear if low pregnancy weight is the culprit, but scientists think it might be a piece of the puzzle.

The other issue with moms not tipping the scales enough, is that if they don’t get enough folic acid right around the time of conception, babies are at risk for spina bifida, a condition the incidence of which has gone up significantly in recent years in Japan.

International health officials and researchers are urging Japanese doctors to loosen up their stance on pregnancy weight gain and bring it more in line with the guidelines in the U.S..

Moms need to be encouraged to up their intake of healthy foods while pregnant (even if only by a couple hundred calories a day), not start dieting to keep off the pounds.

I’m also curious: if a quarter of Japanese women are by our standards “underweight” (probably normal in that population), then by our standards they should gain 28 to 40 pounds. But I saw no indication that underweight moms are given a recommendation different than normal weight ones.

Image: flickr/diofink

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