Health News Articles

The Health Risks of Obesity During Pregnancy

Dec 30, 2013
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When a woman is obese during pregnancy, she is at greater risk for any number of health problems, from diabetes to premature birth. 

But recent research shows that a mother’s weight can also significantly affect a child’s health and later risk of obesity, says Robert Debbs, DO, FACOOG, Director of Penn Maternal Fetal Medicine at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (UMCPP) and the Director of the University of Pennsylvania Maternal Fetal Network. Penn Maternal Fetal Medicine at UMCPP offers advanced care for expectant mothers in New Jersey, including an increased range of services, round-the-clock access, and experts in the field of maternal fetal medicine. 

“Overweight women are more likely to have children who become overweight and have medical problems at an earlier age,” Dr. Debbs says. “We’re seeing teenagers born of women who were significantly overweight having weight-related health problems like high blood pressure.” 

Dr. Debbs recommends that women speak with their doctors about ways to achieve a healthy weight before becoming pregnant. 

A Healthy Weight at Conception

More than one-third of women in New Jersey enter pregnancy at a weight that would be considered obese based on their Body Mass Index, or BMI, Dr. Debbs says. A person is regarded as obese if her BMI, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, is over 30. 

Obese women have a higher incidence of diabetes, infections and preeclampsia, a dangerous combination of high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine during pregnancy. They are also more likely to have complications during a C-section delivery and to have babies with congenital abnormalities. 

A more long-term issue is that an expectant mom’s obesity, in essence, genetically “pre-programs” her baby’s body to be more resistant to insulin, Dr. Debbs says. Insulin resistance harms the body’s ability to process carbohydrates and sugars, causing them to be converted to body fat instead of energy. 

“Many women don’t know the risks of obesity during pregnancy,” says Dr. Debbs, who is board certified in OB/GYN and maternal and fetal medicine. “When women talk to their doctors they often find it very empowering, because there is a lot they can do to prevent these risks.” 

Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

Healthy eating and exercise habits should be developed before pregnancy and continued throughout. Dr. Debbs suggests: 

  • Eating a diet that’s focused on lean meats and fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Women who are pregnant usually do not need more than 2,000 calories a day, although weight-specific guidelines should be used based on your starting weight. 
  • Aiming for 30 minutes of low-impact exercise, such as walking, at least three days a week. Pregnant women should avoid workouts that take their heart rate above 140 beats per minute but should continue to exercise throughout pregnancy. 
  • Scheduling a pre-conception visit with an OB/GYN or a maternal fetal medicine specialist if you’ve had past pregnancy-related health problems.

To find a doctor or to learn more about Penn Maternal Fetal Medicine at UMCPP, call 609.853.7660 or visit