The percentage of women in Scotland starting their pregnancy with a BMI in the obesity category has increased significantly in recent years and is now at an alarming rate of 25%. This is worrying not only due to the potential harmful health effects in mothers, but also due to the consequent potential lifelong adverse effects in children.
What is maternal obesity and what are the risks?
Maternal obesity is categorised as having a BMI of 30+ during pregnancy and is correlated with an increased risk of many adverse effects and outcomes1. Pregnant women with overweight and obesity are at a higher risk of multiple health complications such as gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and hypertension1.
Babies born from mothers with overweight and obesity are also 2-3 times more likely to be of a high birth weight (categorised as being 9lb or over). This increased birth weight consequently leads to an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and overweight and obesity later in life for these babies2.
Maternal obesity is also associated with a greater risk of miscarriage, death during labour, and stillbirth. Obesity during pregnancy also puts mothers at a higher chance of delivery through caesarean section – which is associated with many of its own risks and complications2.
A study published by the British Medical Journal estimated that pregnancy in women with overweight and obesity costs the NHS up to 37% more than pregnancy in women of a healthy weight3.
How prevalent is maternal obesity in Scotland?
The most recent report on ‘Births in Scottish Hospitals’ published by Public Health Scotland in November 2020 has revealed that, of the women who delivered babies in Scottish hospitals in 2019/20, 25% had obesity5. Maternal obesity rates in Scotland have increased from 20.7% in 2011 to 25.0% in 20205.
The European Perinatal Health Report 2015 revealed that Scotland is recording alarmingly high levels of maternal obesities in comparison to other European countries – with the second worst rate of maternal obesity in European countries in 20156. At that time, Scotland was second only to Wales and, outwith UK countries, the next nearest rate was Germany at 14.9%. Since this European report, rates in Scotland have continued to increase.
Which groups are most affected?
Rates of maternal obesity are closely associated with social and economic inequalities in Scotland. Women from areas of high levels of deprivation and those over the age of 40 are the greatest affected by maternal obesity2.
There is a significant gap in the prevalence of obesity during pregnancy depending on levels of deprivation (as categorised by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation)2. In 2020, women living in the areas of the highest levels of deprivation experienced 13% higher rates of maternal obesity than those living in the areas of the lowest levels of deprivation5.
As shown below, those individuals living in the most deprived areas have had consistently higher levels of maternal overweight and obesity than those living in the least deprived areas since 20115.
The widening of the health gap, as demonstrated above, highlights the importance of addressing health inequalities with powerful and effective interventions. Socioeconomic status cannot continue to impact the health outcomes of pregnant women and babies in Scotland.
What are the steps to tackle this?
It is not medically recommended to lose weight whilst pregnant, and therefore prevention strategies are key in order to reduce the number of women in Scotland who fall pregnant whilst experiencing a BMI in the overweight or obesity categories.
Some potential strategies which are specifically aimed at mothers and infants include:
On a whole population level, the current prevention strategies which Obesity Action Scotland recommend – focussing on the promotion of a healthy food environment - have the ability to provide benefits to individuals of all ages and sectors of the country, therefore promoting a healthy weight to all.