Low carbohydrate diets may increase risk of neural tube defects

Birth Defects Res. 2018 Jul 3;110(11):901-909. doi: 10.1002/bdr2.1198. Epub 2018 Jan 25.


Background: Folic acid fortification significantly reduced the prevalence of neural tube defects (NTDs) in the United States. The popularity of "low carb" diets raises concern that women who intentionally avoid carbohydrates, thereby consuming fewer fortified foods, may not have adequate dietary intake of folic acid.

Methods: To assess the association between carbohydrate intake and NTDs, we analyzed data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study from 1,740 mothers of infants, stillbirths, and terminations with anencephaly or spina bifida (cases), and 9,545 mothers of live born infants without a birth defect (controls) conceived between 1998 and 2011. Carbohydrate and folic acid intake before conception were estimated from food frequency questionnaire responses. Restricted carbohydrate intake was defined as ≤5th percentile among controls. Odds ratios were estimated with logistic regression and adjusted for maternal race/ethnicity, education, alcohol use, folic acid supplement use, study center, and caloric intake.

Results: Mean dietary intake of folic acid among women with restricted carbohydrate intake was less than half that of other women (p < .01), and women with restricted carbohydrate intake were slightly more likely to have an infant with an NTD (AOR = 1.30, 95% CI: 1.02, 1.67).

Conclusions: This is the first study to examine the association between carbohydrate intake and NTDs among pregnancies conceived postfortification. We found that women with restricted carbohydrate intake were 30% more likely to have an infant with anencephaly or spina bifida. However, more research is needed to understand the pathways by which restricted carbohydrate intake might increase the risk of NTDs.

Keywords: birth defects; carbohydrate-restricted; carbohydrates; diet; folic acid; neural tube defects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diet, Carbohydrate-Restricted / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Tube Defects / epidemiology*
  • Neural Tube Defects / etiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult