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Does a Maternal Vegetarian Diet Cause Hypospadias?

Posted Aug 02 2010 12:00am

A recent comment to the post “ Birth Defect Risk Increased by Mother’s High Fat Diet ” prompted me to do a little research into the potential harm of a maternal vegetarian diet.   Jenny of The Nourished Kitchen , which features delicious recipes, wrote:

But, that’s not to say a diet in nutrient-dense, natural fats like raw butter would cause the same effects. Lack of retinol (vitamin A from animal sources) is implicated in congenital defects and a vegetarian diet is implicated in hypospadias in humans.

I am a vegetarian and was throughout both of my pregnancies. In fact, for a majority of my daughter’s time in utero, I was a vegan, until my body told me it needed more and I added dairy products back into my diet.  I had never heard of or thought there was any consequence to a maternal vegetarian diet, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what hypospadias was until I Googled it.

Hypospadias is a birth defect in which the urethra is located under the penis rather than on the tip.  This condition is usually successfully treated with surgery.  Hypospadias is on the rise.  In fact the rate of occurrence doubled in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Europe, including the severity of the condition.

Pediatrics in 1997 stated, “Hypospadias is a common congenital anomaly, the cause of which is unknown;” however, later studies found a link to a maternal vegetarian diet and hypospadias .  It is suspected that the condition is “due to an abnormal hormone state during pregnancy”.

VeganHealth.org found three studies on the subject:

  • A 2000 study from the UK ( 2 ) found a link between hypospadias and a vegetarian diet, and also for eating legumes. It did not find a  statistically significant result for drinking soy milk or eating soy meats.
  • A small 2007 study from the Netherlands ( 7 ), did not find a link between a maternal vegetarian diet and hypospadias. Non-vegetarians had a risk ratio of .60 (.3, 1.6).
  • A 2008 study from Sweden and Denmark ( 1 ) found that not eating meat or fish, and not eating meat at least weekly, was associated with hypospadias. Eating fish less than once a week, compared to one to two times per week, was also associated, whereas drinking milk was not.

None of these studies convinces me there is a direct link between a vegetarian diet and hypospadias. If abnormal hormones in pregnancy are to blame, couldn’t BPA be to blame?  It makes more sense to me that a chemical found in plastic already found to affect fertility and genital development would be more likely a cause hypospadias than a vegetarian diet.

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