By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

pregnancy exerciseEating a healthy diet may significantly reduce the risk of women with pregnancy-related diabetes developing high blood pressure, according to new research in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

Researchers studied 3,818 women with a history of pregnancy-related diabetes, or gestational diabetes, enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II as a part of the ongoing Diabetes and Women’s Health Study. Over 22 years of follow-up, they found:

  • A total of 1,069 women developed high blood pressure, which increased their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
  • Women who continually adhered to a healthy diet were 20 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure compared to those who didn’t maintain a healthy diet.
  • Increase in body mass index explained 20 percent to 30 percent of the association between lower healthy dietary pattern scores and increased risk of high blood pressure.

“Our earlier research showed that diabetes in pregnancy increased a woman’s risk of developing hypertension, even 16 years after giving birth,” said Cuilin Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Rockville, Maryland. “Our current study shows that a healthy diet, which has been proven to reduce high blood pressure risk in the general population, appears to be equally effective in reducing the risk in this group of high-risk women.”

Study participants answered a questionnaire about their diets every four years. Researchers matched responses to three healthy diets: the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, the alternative Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The three diets share important similarities: focus on eating fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains while reducing red meat, salt and processed meat.

Researchers adjusted for factors that could bias results, including smoking, level of physical activity, race/ethnicity, oral contraceptive use, family history of high blood pressure and weight. Women with a greater adherence to a healthy diet were less likely to be current smokers and to consume trans fat and more likely to be moderate alcohol drinkers, eat more cereal fiber and be more physically active.

Lower weight gain appeared to contribute to some of the reduced risk of developing high blood pressure in women on a healthy diet. But a healthy diet, regardless of weight gain or loss, still protected against high blood pressure.

“While the majority of these women’s glucose levels will return to normal after delivery, our study should serve as an early warning signal,” said Zhang, noting that the pregnancy complication is usually treated by reducing calories, particularly those that come from carbohydrates, and increasing exercise.

Physicians and other healthcare providers should also encourage mothers to continue the healthy practices after delivery, Zhang said.