October 7, 1995
Web posted at: 7:15 p.m. EDT
From Reporter Liz Weiss
BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Debbie Macrides is six months pregnant and pays attention to everything she eats.
"I try to eat on a regular schedule, every morning, afternoon, evening," she says. And I try to make sure that I have all my four major food groups, on top of a little extra for the baby."
She also takes a prenatal multi-vitamin, a prescription that makes a lot of health sense. But according to a new study, pregnant women who take high doses of vitamin A may be putting their babies at risk for birth defects.
"Our data show that women taking supplements of vitamin A at levels greater than 10,000 international units per day, have an increased proportion of babies born with selected birth defects," says Kenneth Rothman of the Boston University School of Medicine.
The Boston researchers interviewed more than 20,000 women about diet and supplements use during the early weeks of their pregnancy. Although a very small number of women delivered babies with birth defects, those taking supplements with high doses of vitamin A were at greatest risk.
"Vitamin A intake during the first few weeks of pregnancy may be critical and because vitamin A is stored in the body, it is even possible that excess vitamin A intake before conception could lead to birth defects," Rothman says.
Everyone, including the developing fetus, needs vitamin A. The recommended daily allowance is 2,700 international units, but the amount found in some single supplements can be as high as 25,000. So, experts say it's important to read labels. While levels of 10,000 international units or higher were found to be dangerous, most prenatal and multi-vitamins have about 5,000 units.
Some women may take a combination of multi-vitamins and additional vitamin A supplements," Rothman says. "Or they may take more than one multi-vitamin pill per day. These women, if pregnant, may also be placing their child at risk.
But one nutrition researcher who's on the advisory board for a supplement company hopes this study won't send the wrong message.
"Many of us are not eating our five fruits and vegetables a day, that sort of thing, and some multiple vitamins have a lot of benefits for all of us and not just for pregnant women," warns Gladys Block of the University of California- Berkeley.
The researchers also note that beta carotene, a precursor form of vitamin A, did not appear to pose a health risk to pregnant women, nor did foods high in beta carotene such as carrots and tomatoes.
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