Mediterranean diet, folic acid, and neural tube defects

Maximilian Fischer, Mauro Stronati, Marcello Lanari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Mediterranean diet has been for a very long time the basis of food habits all over the countries of the Mediterranean basin, originally founded on rural models and low consumption of meat products and high-fat/high-processed foods. However, in the modern era, the traditional Mediterranean diet pattern is now progressively eroding due to the widespread dissemination of the Western-type economy, life-style, technology-driven culture, as well as the globalisation of food production, availability and consumption, with consequent homogenisation of food culture and behaviours. This transition process may affect many situations, including pregnancy and offspring's health. The problem of the diet during pregnancy and the proper intake of nutrients are nowadays a very current topic, arousing much debate. The Mediterranean dietary pattern, in particular, has been associated with the highest risk reduction of major congenital anomalies, like the heterogeneous class of neural tube defects (NTDs). NTDs constitute a major health burden (0.5-2/1000 pregnancies worldwide) and still remain a preventable cause of still birth, neonatal and infant death, or significant lifelong disabilities. Many studies support the finding that appropriate folate levels during pregnancy may confer protection against these diseases. In 1991 one randomised controlled trial (RCT) demonstrated for the first time that periconceptional supplementation of folic acid is able to prevent the recurrence of NTDs, finding confirmed by many other subsequent studies. Anyway, the high rate of unplanned/unintended pregnancies and births and other issues hindering the achievement of adequate folate levels in women in childbearing age, induced the US government and many other countries to institute mandatory food fortification with folic acid. The actual strategy adopted by European Countries (including Italy) suggests that women take 0,4 mg folic acid/die before conception. The main question is which intervention, between folic acid supplementation, foods fortification or both, linked to a healthy life-style and diet pattern may represent the best method in preventing NTDs. The aim of this review is to describe the actual situation in NTDs prevention, with a special attention to the Italiancontext concerning this delicate and controversial subject.

Original languageEnglish
Article number74
JournalItalian Journal of Pediatrics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Aug 17 2017


  • Congenital defects
  • Folate
  • Folic acid
  • Fortification
  • Mediterranean diet
  • Neural tube defects
  • Pregnancy
  • Supplementation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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