Overindulging in junk food can cause moms-to-be to gain too much weight during pregnancy—but the very opposite may be true for babies. According to a new study from Sweden, mothers who regularly eat foods like french fries and potato chips during pregnancy could be putting their babies at risk for lower birth weights and smaller head circumferences.
What's the connection? It appears to be a substance called acrylamide, a chemical naturally produced in starch-rich foods that are baked or fried at high temperatures. Acrylamide has been found in a wide range of home-cooked and processed foods including doughnuts, potato chips, cookies, and toasted bread. It is also found in coffee.
In the study, researchers examined the diets of 1,100 pregnant women living in Europe. When birth weights of their newborns were compared, children exposed to the highest levels of acrylamide weighed 3.5 ounces less on average than infants exposed to minimal levels. Average head circumferences were also up to 0.33 centimeters smaller in these same babies, researchers found.
These numbers might not seem like much cause for concern, but for infants, especially those born preterm, tiny differences in size can matter. Small head size has been associated with delayed neurodevelopment and lower birth weights are linked with a number of health issues. Researchers actually found the changes in weight so striking that they compared the effects of acrylamide to lower birth weights caused by maternal smoking.
"This is important new research which demonstrates a clear link between acrylamide and the health of newborn babies," Professor John Wright from the UK's Bradford Institute for Health Research, who is leading a similar study, tells the UK Telegraph.
And this isn't the first time acrylamide has been in the news. Animal studies have identified acrylamide as a possible carcinogen, but these latest results "provide further evidence about the potential toxicity of acrylamide and should also encourage food manufacturers to start exploring methods to reduce acrylamide in their products," wrote researchers.
Will this get you to tame your junk food cravings during pregnancy? It has for mom-to-be Michelle Light of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who admits, "Too much sugar, too much fat, and now this stuff. That doughnut may be really tempting—like really, really tempting—but nah, I think I'll pass."