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Inadequate fiber intake during pregnancy could delay a child’s brain development, according to a new study. FOTOGRAFIA INC./Getty Images
  • A​ recent study found that low fiber during pregnancy could raise the risk of neurodevelopmental delays in children.
  • Fiber is a critical component of a healthy, balanced diet, especially during pregnancy.
  • Pregnant people can increase their fiber intake as needed with appropriate guidance from nutritional experts.

Pregnancy is a complex time that can influence myriad health outcomes.

Researchers are still seeking to understand what actions and environmental factors during pregnancy affect offspring later in life.

Diet during pregnancy can influence the health and development of the baby, but experts are still working to understand the outcomes of certain dietary specifics.

A​ recent study in Frontiers in Nutrition looked at fiber intake during pregnancy.

Results of the study found that lower fiber intake during pregnancy was associated with a higher risk for neurodevelopmental delays in offspring.

For the study, researchers noted that previous animal studies had shown a link between low fiber intake in pregnancy and delayed brain development in offspring.

Using information from the Japan Environment and Children’s Study, the researchers examined data from 76,207 mother-infant pairs.

T​hey looked at fiber intake during pregnancy, dividing participants into one of five groups based on their level of fiber intake during pregnancy.

T​hey then assessed developmental delays in children at age three. They did this by having parents or caregivers fill out questionnaires that assessed children’s communication, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving, and personal-social skills. A lower score indicated higher levels of developmental delay.

The researchers found that those with the lowest fiber intake had the highest associated risk of having children with neurodevelopmental delays, compared to the group of mothers with the highest intake of total dietary fiber.

They identified four key areas associated with delayed infant brain growth due to low fiber intake:

  • communication
  • problem-solving
  • personal-social
  • fine motor skills

Even after accounting for folic acid intake, the researchers still found key risks for developmental delays among the group with the lowest dietary fiber intake.

“Most pregnant women in Japan consume far less dietary fiber than what is the recommended intake; thereby, this maternal nutritional imbalance during pregnancy may adversely affect the neurodevelopment of their offspring,” study author Kunio Miyake, PhD, with the University of Yamanashi, explained to Medical News Today.

“Therefore, nutritional guidance for pregnant mothers is crucial to reduce the risk of future health problems for their children.”

Study authors speculate that the reason for the results is the relationship between the gut microbiota and the brain and how fiber influences it.

“Dietary fiber is known to affect the regulation of gut microbiota and the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs),” Dr. Miyake explained.

“In animal studies, SCFAs such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate are known to modulate sympathetic nervous system activation and affect brain function and behavior in offspring.”

“Our results suggest that maternal inadequate dietary fiber intake during pregnancy affected child neurodevelopmental delay through decreased production of SCFAs by gut bacterial fermentation of dietary fiber.”

— Dr. Kunio Miyake, PhD, study author

The findings from the Japanese study have some limitations that indicate the need for more research on the impacts of low fiber intake on neonatal outcomes.

The study also relied on participant self-reporting, which is subject to errors and inaccuracies.

In addition, the researchers cannot rule out other nutrients that could have contributed to the results, and they didn’t look at dietary fiber intake from supplements.

The food frequency questionnaire that they used led to a possibility of misclassification. Researchers also did not look at how components like baby food and diet in early childhood may have impacted the results.

Non-study author Abrar Al-Shaer, PhD, a registered dietitian with Nourish Women Nutrition, noted the following limitation of the study to MNT:

“A limitation of this study is that they did not examine nutrients like omega-3s and choline, they only looked at whether mothers were meeting their folate requirements. And the study points out that only about 11% of the mothers in the study met their folate requirements in pregnancy, hence impacting the results of the study. The authors of the study did adjust for the differences in folate intake in their analyses but did not adjust for choline and omega-3s, which play major roles in neurodevelopment.”

Further research could also look more at the underlying mechanisms that may be at work to create this link between fiber and neurodevelopment, including looking at the bacteria in the gut.

“It is necessary to investigate the effects on development after age 3,” Dr. Miyake noted. “Future research should also analyze the gut microbiota and its metabolites to elucidate the molecular mechanisms associated with maternal dietary fiber intake during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment.”

Fiber is an important healthy diet component and is essential during pregnancy.

Non-study author Dr. Brian Power, PhD, a nutrition expert with Atlantic Technological University in Sligo, Ireland, told MNT:

“Numerous studies demonstrate that increasing dietary fiber consumption during pregnancy benefits many women by minimizing the risk of glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, and uncontrollable weight gain.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently recommends that people get 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories they consume.

So, for people eating 2,000 calories each day, they should get about 28 grams of fiber each day. A low fiber diet — or “low residue diet” — usually has around 10 to 15 daily grams of daily fiber.

However, guidelines in Japan differ slightly, and only 8.4% of study participants had more than 18 grams of fiber daily. After taking folic acid into account, results from the study may also note a risk from taking too much fiber.

During pregnancy, it is essential to communicate closely with your healthcare team to understand potential nutrition deficiencies and how to compensate for them.

If your diet is low in fiber, your doctor may recommend increasing your intake through fiber-rich foods or supplements. Examples of high fiber foods include:

  • whole grain kernel cereal
  • artichokes
  • beans
  • certain fruits (i.e., apples, blackberries, and raspberries)

“Increasing fiber can be done simply by incorporating more whole foods like vegetables, legumes, nuts [and] seeds, and fruit throughout your day,” Dr. Al-Shaer said.

“Many fruits are a great source of fiber, like berries or bananas, and all the nuts and seeds pack a fiber punch. A general good rule of thumb I recommend to my patients is to try to fill half of your plate, each meal, with non-starchy veggies. Non-starchy veggies include almost all vegetables except for potatoes, corn, and peas. That way, we get ample amounts of fiber throughout the day. And when preparing breakfast bowls or salads, sprinkling sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, or beans is another great way to increase our fiber intake easily.”

— Abrar Al-Shaer, PhD, registered dietitian