EATING for two healthily can help prevent birth defects, a study has shown.
Children of women who consume a healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fibre are less likely to have abnormalities such as spina bifida and cleft palate, say researchers.
Scientists asked women from 10 US states to answer detailed questions about their eating habits immediately before and during pregnancy.
Among the women were 3,824 whose foetuses or babies had a neural tube defect or a cleft lip or palate.
Their dietary habits were compared with 6,807 women who gave birth to healthy infants. A score was given for how well food consumption matched a healthy Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood and heart-healthy fats such as olive oil. Another score assessed similarity to US government dietary guidelines, which emphasise low-fat, fibre-rich foods and avoidance of processed food.
Low scores were obtained for foods laden with saturated fats, such as red meat and butter.
Women with the top 25pc of highest scores were 36pc to 51pc less likely than those with the lowest scores to have a pregnancy affected by anencephaly -- a serious and fatal brain defects.
Similarly, the women with the highest diet quality scores had a 24pc to 34pc reduced risk of giving birth to a child with cleft lip.
Higher diet quality was also protective against spina bifida and cleft palate, but to a smaller degree.
Previous research on diet and birth defects has generally focused on individual nutrients.
For instance, the B vitamin folic acid has been shown to protect against neural tube defects.
Professor Gary Shaw, from Stanford University School of Medicine, said: "We've been trying to disentangle a particular nutrient from the composite diet. But I think we're wrong in that approach.
"It would have been really nice to have the magic bullet against birth defects. Folic acid was the hope for a magic bullet, and it clearly only made some of the difference."
The findings are published in the journal, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.