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  • A new study finds that sticking to the Mediterranean diet may decrease the risk of developing preeclampsia.
  • The condition occurs in people who are pregnant and can be life threatening.
  • There are few treatments that can reduce the risk of preeclampsia.

The Mediterranean diet may help reduce women’s risk of developing preeclampsia while pregnant, according to a new study.

The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, and it’s known that preeclampsia — a serious and life-threatening pregnancy complication — is one of the factors behind the country’s elevated maternal death rate.

The report, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association Wednesday, found that pregnant people on a Mediterranean diet had a nearly 20 percent decreased risk of developing preeclampsia.

“Because it’s difficult to predict who will get preeclampsia, having a dietary intervention that can lower the risk of preeclampsia plus the other associated risk factors for it, is good fortune,” Dr. Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of Recipe for Survival, told Healthline.

It’s important to note that not everyone assigned female at birth identifies with the label “woman.” While we aim to create content that includes and reflects the diversity of our readers, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings. The studies and surveys referenced in this article did not include data on participants who are transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

The study included health data for over 8,500 women recruited from the Boston Medical Center — a healthcare facility that predominantly treats low-income and under-represented racial and ethnic populations.

Close to half of the participants, about 47 percent, were Black, 28 percent were Hispanic, and the remaining were white or women of another race.

The research team distributed questionnaires to the individuals that included questions about their diet and eating habits.

The report found that 10 percent of the individuals developed preeclampsia, and those who had diabetes or obesity before pregnancy were twice as likely to develop preeclampsia.

Those who adhered to a Mediterranean-style diet had a 20 percent lower risk of preeclampsia.

The risk reduction was greatest amongst Black women, who are at increased risk for preeclampsia compared to white or Hispanic women.

Black women who did not follow a Mediterranean-style diet had a 72 percent higher risk of preeclampsia compared to non-Black women who ate foods typical to a Mediterranean diet.

Black women in the U.S. face nearly triple the risk of maternal mortality compared to white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s important to note that the stress of enduring racism, discrimination, and racist systems may play a part in these different health outcomes. Research has found that biases among physicians and systemic inequalities can mean Black women face significant difficulties in getting proper medical care even before they conceive.

Prior research on Mediterranean-style diets and preeclampsia has been mixed, which the authors claim may be due to the lack of high-risk women included in the studies.

“There are so many factors that affect the risk of developing preeclampsia that studies looking at just one factor makes it hard to be conclusive. However, by adding multiple nutritional and lifestyle tweaks, you can help lower your risk,” Kaslyn Rezac, a registered dietitian and prenatal/pregnancy nutrition specialist said.

Preeclampsia is a serious pregnancy complication that can trigger life-threatening symptoms, including hypertension, proteinuria, and signs of organ damage. The condition also increases women’s risk for long-term heart disease, cardiac events, and heart failure.

According to the authors, a Mediterranean-type diet may improve oxidative stress or endothelial cell function. It may also boost placenta vascular function and support healthy metabolomic changes.

“It is thought that the combination of higher plant-based foods, less processed…foods that are also anti-inflammatory and therefore decrease oxidative stress (related to inflammation) may be why [and] how these beneficial effects occur,” says Hunnes.

Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, OB/GYN Lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, says that the Mediterranean diet also promotes lower insulin levels with improved glucose control.

There are few interventions available to prevent preeclampsia during pregnancy, and medications must be used carefully as there are risks, the researchers said in a press release.

According to Ruiz, baby aspirin is the most commonly used medication to reduce the risk of preeclampsia.

“Other than this, we currently don’t have other preventative medications/treatments,” Ruiz said.

The authors hope the findings shed light on how healthy eating habits can reduce the risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women.

Start by swapping out red meat for whole, unprocessed foods, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, salads, and whole grains.

Cut back on packaged foods and artificial ingredients, Rezac says.

Ruiz suggests using healthy oils, like olive oil, and eating lean proteins like skinless chicken and fish — such as salmon or halibut.

“Before you eat a meal, think ‘are these real, whole foods,’ meaning minimally processed,” says Rezac.

Hunnes says there are many ways to modify meals. For example, opt for a bean burger on a whole-grain bun instead of a traditional cheeseburger or a handful of walnuts or cashews rather than a bag of potato chips.

“The more colorful the fruits and vegetables (and whole-grains) added to the diet, the better,” Hunnes said.

The Mediterranean diet may help reduce women’s risk of developing preeclampsia while pregnant, according to new research. The benefits were strongest in Black women, who face a higher risk of preeclampsia compared to white and Hispanic women. There are limited interventions available to prevent preeclampsia, and the researchers believe healthier eating may help women lower their risk of preeclampsia during pregnancy.