Health and Teen Pregnancy*
(* Excerpts from excellent April 2003 Report of the Maternity Alliance and the Food Commission (H. Burchett and A. Seeley)
When a teenager becomes pregnant she needs all the help and support she can
get. Babies born to teenagers are more likely to have lower birth weights,
increased risk of infant mortality and an increased risk of some congenital
anomalies. Pregnant teenagers are more likely to be disadvantaged than nonpregnant
teenagers and this tends to continue after the birth, with teenage
parents often living on a low income. Evidence suggests that the poor health
outcomes experienced by pregnant teenagers and their babies are due more to
poverty and social exclusion than young maternal age itself. The importance of
nutrition during pregnancy for the health of both mother and child is well
Teenagers are renowned for their unhealthy eating habits. Nutritional needs are
high in adolescence as the body grows and develops; yet evidence shows that
teenagers often have inadequate diets. Their diets tend to be high in sugar, salt
and saturated fat and lacking in fruit and vegetables6. Common teenage eating
behaviors include skipping meals, frequent snacking on foods high in fat or sugar
or low in nutritional value, and a reliance on convenient and fast foods7.
“I'd eat all the time if we had the money!” 16 year old, 7-9 months pregnant, living
The present report looks at the diets being eaten by pregnant under 18 year olds.
If such young women are failing to eat healthily, both their health and that of their
growing baby are at risk. Inadequate nutrition during pregnancy will affect the
mother's long-term health, as the growing fetus draws on her nutrient reserves,
and it will affect the fetus which, deprived of an adequate range of nutrients,
will be at risk of stunting and early symptoms of heart disease and diabetes.
Interviews were carried out with 46 pregnant teenagers aged under 18 from seven
locations around England. Most of the teenagers consumed too many high
salt/sugar/fat foods in the 24-hour period analyzed. Commonly consumed foods
included milk, breakfast cereals (usually sweetened), squashes/fizzy drinks, white
bread and crisps/bagged snacks. Almost all of the teenagers did not eat enough
fruit and vegetables. A nutritional analysis of a sample of participants showed that
the majority ate diets that did not meet energy requirements (despite frequent
consumption of high sugar/fat foods). Most ate too much fat (particularly
saturated fat), too much sugar and not enough fiber. Insufficient intakes of vitamin
A, magnesium, zinc and vitamin C were common.
Most participants missed meals frequently and the two main reasons for this were
not being hungry and not having the money.
Almost all participants had made changes to their diet since becoming pregnant
and over half had made healthy improvements. Changes were made because of
changes in taste (e.g. cravings, nausea) and because their pregnancy created a
motivation to eat more healthily for the sake of their baby's health.
Most of the teenagers were aware of the basic components of a healthy diet.
However, taste preferences were the most common reason for not eating the foods
they thought they should. Everyone remembered receiving some form of dietary
advice; the most common source was midwives. However, negative advice (i.e.
what foods to avoid or cut down on) was more easily recalled than positive advice
about what to eat more of. The majority reported trying to follow the advice
given. Of those who did not follow advice, or only followed it sometimes, almost
all said that this was because it was too expensive.
Food choices were affected by financial constraints for a substantial number, with
more 'cheap fillers', less variety and less fresh produce eaten as money ran out.4
Four fifths of participants said that they had experienced health problems during
their pregnancy. Over two thirds had problems related to, or affecting, their food
consumption. The most common problems were morning sickness (n=25) and anemia (n=12).
Three fifths of participants said that what they ate in the 24-hour recall was
typical of what they normally ate. The remainder felt that their 24-hour recall did
not reflect their typical diet for a number of reasons, such as illness or because of
unusual activities that day preventing usual eating patterns.
Frequency of foods eaten
The foods consumed in the 24-hour recalls were classified according to food type
(e.g. bread product, processed meat) and the frequency of their consumption was
then calculated. This gives an indication of the basic components of the women's
Table - Frequency of Foods Eaten in 24-hour Test Period
[Key: Type of Food --- Number Eating This Food --- Average Number of Portions]
Milk 40 2-3
Bread/toast/rolls 35 3-4
Squashes and soft drinks 34 2-3
Crisps/bagged snacks/pot snacks 31 2
Breakfast cereals 29 1
Low sugar breakfast cereals 13 1
High sugar breakfast cereals 16 1
Vegetable/salad (excluding potatoes) 27 1-2
Processed meat products 26 1-2
Confectionary 25 1-2
Sweet tea/coffee 18 2-3
Chips/French fries 18 1-2
Fresh/lean meat 18 1
Fruit and fruit juice 17 1
Biscuit/cake/dessert 16 4-5
Cheese 15 1-2
Potatoes (not chips/crisps) 12 1
Pastry 9 1-2
Pasta/rice 7 1
Eggs 6 1
White fish and processed fish products 7 1
Seeds/nuts/pulses 3 1
Yogurt 3 1
Alcohol 2 1-2
Oily fish 0 0
* Excerpts from excellent April 2003 Report of the Maternity Alliance and the Food Commission (H. Burchett and A. Seeley)