Do low carb diets increase the risk of birth defects?

Many thanks to Belinda Fettke for the topic for this week’s note. Belinda messaged me with links to a couple of sensational media headlines. The Daily Mail ran a story entitled “Low carb diets like Atkins, Paleo or Keto linked to risk of birth defects including spina bifida, study claims.” (Ref 1) The New Zealand Herald went even further claiming “Low carb diets like Paleo and Keto increase risk of birth defects.” (Ref 2)

It didn’t take too long to find the Press Release behind the story from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Ref 3) The original article (open to view) was published in a journal called “Birth Defects Research.” (Ref 4) On this occasion, we can’t blame the media for the dramatic headlines – the researchers encouraged them by calling their article “Low carbohydrate diets may increase risk of neural tube defects.”

The press release

The press release was scary stuff. It opened with the caution “Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant may want to avoid diets that reduce or eliminate carbohydrates, as they could increase the risk of having babies with neural tube birth defects, according to a new study from UNC-Chapel Hill.” Neural tube defects (NTDs) include conditions such as spina bifida (malformations of the spine and spinal cord) and anencephaly (absence of major portions of the brain and skull), which can lead to lifelong disability and/or infant death; clearly very frightening outcomes.

The press release went on to claim that “women with low carbohydrate intake are 30 percent more likely to have babies with neural tube defects, when compared with women who do not restrict their carbohydrate intake.”

It was claimed in the press release that this was the first study to evaluate the relationship between low carbohydrate intake and having children with neural tube defects (NTDs).


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