stories of hope The Not So Sweet Consequences of Sugary Treats During Pregnancy

A team of WCHRI researchers have investigated the causes and consequences of women eating more sugary treats during pregnancy, with the goal of understanding why pregnant women consumed more sugar and how that affected the health of the mother and child. They called themselves “Sweet Moms” and endeavoured to uncover the not-so-sweet effects of sugar during pregnancy and after.

Story written and originally published by the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

One of the most exciting times in a woman’s life is pregnancy. It can also be a thrilling time for their family and friends, who may bring sweets in a celebratory gesture. After nine months, extra weight gained may be left around mom’s middle, but her focus is redirected to the needs of the newborn. The resulting weight retention may not be top of mind but can contribute to higher maternal weight over the long term.

A team of Women and Children's Health Research Institute researchers have investigated the causes and consequences of women eating more sugary treats during pregnancy, with the goal of understanding why pregnant women consumed more sugar and how that affected the health of the mother and child. Together the team, led by Dr. Rhonda Bell, with co-leaders Drs. Denise Hemmings, Donna Manca, Arya Sharma, Maria Mayan and Venu Jain, received a partnership grant from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, the Lois Hole Hospital for Women and WCHRI. They called themselves “Sweet Moms” and endeavoured to uncover the not-so-sweet effects of sugar during pregnancy and after.

Sweet Moms was a truly interdisciplinary team. Each investigator is from a different department at the University of Alberta, capitalizing on distinct perspectives and skills that enhanced the three studies that made up Sweet Moms’ efforts. “Our studies included an animal study, a study using information from a cohort of pregnant women and a qualitative study,” explains Bell. “We were interested in maternal intake of sugar and what it meant for mom and baby.”

 
Sweet Moms was a truly interdisciplinary team. Each investigator is from a different department at the University of Alberta, capitalizing on distinct perspectives and skills that enhanced the three studies that made up Sweet Moms’ efforts. The team was interested in maternal intake of sugar and what it meant for mom and baby.

Sweet Moms began in 2012 and has been working to share their findings to fuel the next stage of research. The results of the animal study showed that high sugar intake increased the risk of gestational diabetes and blood vessel constriction in the uterus and the rest of the body. This suggests that excess sugar intake, and particularly purified fructose, could contribute to the development of preeclampsia or other blood pressure-related complications in pregnancy. The qualitative study asked moms why they increased their sugar intake in pregnancy. “The qualitative study really highlighted that women’s diets don’t change because of just one factor,” says Bell. “There are many different factors that influence diet such as ease of access, peer or family pressure, availability of foods, pregnancy-related cravings or aversions – the list goes on. If we are going to try to intervene, we have to think about all these different factors.”

The data collected during Sweet Moms has been the basis for creating the researchers’ next project, ENRICH. ENRICH aims to improve maternal health in pregnancy and postpartum by researching innovative ways to promote healthy weight and healthy eating. “Sweet Moms was very successful and we decided to use the same model for ENRICH,” says Bell. “It takes what we learned in Sweet Moms to another level because we are taking our past research and focusing on how to use it to create interventions.”

The ENRICH program currently has 12 studies that are all aimed at encouraging women to maintain a healthy weight in pregnancy and postpartum through healthy eating. Different approaches are needed to support the diverse groups of women who live in Alberta. One set of projects has helped develop and release information about healthy pregnancy through new platforms available through Alberta Health Services. Another project worked with the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative to create a grocery run program that provides food hampers for pregnant immigrant/refugee women. This encourages the women to visit the Cooperative to meet their food needs, while accessing other vital assistance or resources. “We are trying to use food as a gateway to providing resources for a better life,” says Bell. ENRICH has also helped to establish an Elders Mentoring Program where Elders from the Maskwacis community bridge the cultural gap between health care providers and pregnant Indigenous women who come to the clinic. It’s expected that the ENRICH program will continue to work alongside these communities and many more.

Research that started in a lab measuring sugar intake in animals has slowly translated all the way to helping at-risk communities of women.

"It’s really exciting to see how a project like Sweet Moms can translate across the research spectrum and interact with the community"

The Women and Children's Health Research Institute and Lois Hole Hospital for Women are pleased to announce that more research like Dr. Bell's will be conducted at the Lois Hole Hospital Research Centre on June 5, 2018.

"This space will provide the ideal type of space for our projects focused on improving maternal care before, during pregnancy and after pregnancy," says Bell. "The fact that it's part of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women therefore makes it easier and more convenient for researchers to connect with health care providers who care for women and women themselves is key.  It has room for focus groups and interviews to take place and for research and clinical staff to work with women who will be part of intervention studies.  We'll use this space in these ways.  Collecting information/data easily and in the places where it will be used will help to make sure the research is relevant and that advances in care can applied more quickly. It also underlines that Edmonton, as a city, has a strong focus on health and highlights the importance of women's health specifically.  That makes this new research space even more special."

This important research space will provide the WCHRI team the ability to facilitate research in women's health without impacting the daily clinical care requirements of the hospital. It will also allow clinicians to easily participate and further their clinical research programs which contribute to improving patient care and enhancing the knowledge of all care providers.

Research in this facility will impact women at all stages of their lives. Current studies span reproductive health, mental and stress disorders, ovarian/ gynecologic cancer and mature women's health.

In a research-oriented hospital, like the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, the highest level of care is a reality. Clinicians work hand-in-hand with researchers on the leading-edge medicines and procedures to provide the best possible patient outcomes.