Diet Linked to Higher Rates of Preeclampsia in Latinas

For pregnant Latinas, food choices could reduce the risk of preeclampsia, an especially dangerous type of hypertension. A new study shows that a diet based on cultural food preferences, rather than official guidelines, is more likely to help prevent this disease.

Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC found that a combination of solid fats, refined grains and cheese was linked to higher rates of preeclampsia among a group of low-income Latinas in Los Angeles.

On the contrary, Women who ate vegetables, fruits, and meals prepared with healthy oils were less likely to develop the disease.

A doctor checks a pregnant patient in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 17, 2021.

The combination of vegetables, fruits and healthy oils, such as olive oil, showed a stronger correlation with lower rates of preeclampsia than the Healthy Eating Index-2015, a list of nutritional recommendations designed by the United States Department of Agriculture ( USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The study, published in the February issue of the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), provided important information about which food combinations affect pregnant Latinas, explained Luis Maldonado, principal investigator and postdoctoral fellow in the Department. of Population Sciences and Public Health at USC Keck. The work suggests that dietary recommendations for these Latinas should incorporate more foods from their cultures, he said.

“Many studies that have been conducted with pregnant women in general have been predominantly white (non-Hispanic), and diet is closely linked to culture”Maldonado said. “Your culture can facilitate how you eat because you know what your favorite food is.”

In the United States, preeclampsia is estimated to occur in approximately 5% of pregnancies, and is among the leading causes of maternal morbidity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It usually occurs during the third trimester of pregnancy and is associated with obesity, hypertension and chronic kidney disease, among other conditions.

There is no way to cure or predict preeclampsia. The disease can damage the heart and liver, and cause other complications for both mother and baby, including premature birth and even death.

Preeclampsia rates have increased over the past two decades nationwide. In California, hypertension rates increased 83% and 78% between 2016 and 2022, according to the most recent data available, and are highest among Black residents and Pacific Islanders.

Maldonado explained that 12% of the 451 Latina women who participated in the study developed preeclampsia, a number that represents almost double the national average. More than half of the participants, aged 28 on average, had risk factors before becoming pregnant, such as high body mass index and diabetes.

Maldonado and her team used data from the Maternal and Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors Center, a USC research group that studies the effects of environmental exposures and social catalysts of stress on the health of mothers and their children.

The participants, who were predominantly low-income Latinas from Los Angeles, completed two questionnaires about their diet during the third trimester of their pregnancies. The researchers identified two significant dietary patterns: one in which the most consumed foods were vegetables, oils, fruits, whole grains and yogurt; and a second, in which the women's diet consisted mainly of solid fats, refined grains, cheese, added sugar and processed meat.

The group of women who followed the first nutritional pattern had a lower rate of preeclampsia than those who followed the second pattern.

When Maldonado and her team looked for a correlation between lower rates of preeclampsia and the Healthy Eating Index-2015, they found that it was not statistically significant except in women who were overweight before pregnancy.

The Healthy Eating Index includes combinations of nutrients and foods, such as dairy and fatty acids. Maldonado added that more research is needed to determine the exact profile of fruits, vegetables and oils that could benefit Latina women.

When it comes to diet, the right message and recommendations are vital to help pregnant Latinas to make decisions based on good information, said A. Susana Ramírez, associate professor of Public Health Communication at the University of California-Merced.

Ramírez has conducted studies on why healthy eating messages, although well-intentioned, have not been successful in Hispanic communities. He found that these messages have led some Latinos to believe that Mexican food is less healthy than American food.

Ramírez stated that we need to think about promoting diets that are relevant to a particular population. “We now understand that diet is tremendously important for health, and therefore, to the extent that any nutrition advice is culturally appropriate, this will improve overall health,” Ramírez said.

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