Maternal obesity, metabolism, and pregnancy outcomes

Annu Rev Nutr. 2006:26:271-91. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132249.


About one third of all pregnant women in the United States are obese. Maternal obesity at conception alters gestational metabolic adjustments and affects placental, embryonic, and fetal growth and development. Neural tube defects and other developmental anomalies are more common in infants born to obese women; these defects have been linked to poor glycemic control. Preeclampsia, a gestational disorder occurring more frequently in obese women, appears to be due to a subclinical inflammatory state that impairs early placentation and development of its blood supply. Fetal growth and development during the last half of pregnancy depends on maternal metabolic adjustments dictated by placental hormones and the subsequent oxygen and nutrient supply. Maternal obesity affects these metabolic adjustments as well. Basal metabolic rates are significantly higher in obese women, and maternal fat gain is lower, possibly in response to altered leptin function. The usual increase in insulin resistance seen in late pregnancy is enhanced in obese mothers, causing marked postprandial increases in glucose, lipids, and amino acids and excessive fetal exposure to fuel sources, which in turn increases fetal size, fat stores, and risk for disease postnatally. Impaired glucose tolerance, gestational diabetes, and hyperlipidemia are more common among obese mothers. To date, little attention has been given to the role of diet among obese women in preventing these problems. However, studies of women with impaired glucose tolerance show that replacing refined carbohydrates and saturated fat with complex, low-glycemic carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fatty acids improves metabolic homeostasis and pregnancy outcomes. Thus, current dietary guidelines regarding the amount and type of carbohydrates and fat for nonpregnant women seem appropriate for pregnant women as well.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Nutrition Policy
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy Outcome*
  • Prenatal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*