Q&A: Barbara Abrams on her prenatal-nutrition research

Newly elected to the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, Barbara Abrams, professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health, talks about her passion for improving prenatal nutrition.  

Q: What’s the primary focus of your research?

Barbara Abrams

Barbara Abrams

A: I have always been interested in how body size before and weight gain during pregnancy affect the health of women and their children. I believe that if women ate better before, during, and after pregnancy, their children would be healthier. My work is aimed at improving the diet and health of women and to eliminate, or at least reduce, health disparities.

Q: What led you into research on prenatal nutrition?

A: I pursued a Master of Public Health degree here at Berkeley and special professional training so that I could counsel pregnant and nursing mothers. Working as a perinatal nutritionist, I realized that there wasn’t enough research to answer questions my patients asked me, like “How much weight do I really need to gain if I’m overweight before pregnancy?” and “How does my weight gain and diet during pregnancy affect my baby’s health?” I came back to Berkeley for my doctorate, wrote my dissertation using data from the patients I had worked with, and have been answering questions like these ever since.

Q: Do your students help?

A: Berkeley students are integrally involved in every step of my research. It is a joy to observe each student grow in skills and confidence, while contributing new knowledge to benefit mothers and babies. The majority of my students continue to focus on maternal and child health after graduation, and I am very proud of their independent contributions to the field.

Q: How might your research benefit society?

A: What happens in the womb affects a newborn’s survival and health, and we now have new and exciting evidence that nutrition during pregnancy and in early life appears to influence health throughout life. My studies are aimed at determining the optimal weight gain, diet and other lifestyle behaviors for women during pregnancy, based on what they weighed before they became pregnant.

My research pays special attention to the “delicate balance” between preventing obesity in the mother during pregnancy while meeting critical nutritional requirements. I hope it will inform clinical and public health policies and interventions to ensure that every woman is as healthy as possible, both before and during pregnancy. This is not easy given our current obesity epidemic, as well as the social and economic stresses on families. I also hope my research serves as an impetus for optimizing maternal and fetal health, and through that the overall health and happiness of the entire population.

Q: How has being at UC Berkeley helped advance your work?

A: The Berkeley School of Public Health is a remarkable resource. Faculty experts in biostatistics, maternal and child health, epidemiology and public health nutrition, among other fields, have made essential contributions to my work. More recently, our school’s expertise in social determinants of health and health disparities have added immeasurably to how I think about problems in maternal nutrition. And Berkeley students are the very best in the world!

Q: What part of your research is the most satisfying?

A: I had the privilege of serving on the committees that wrote the 1990 and 2009 Institute of Medicine recommendations for weight gain during pregnancy, which serve as the formal guidelines for clinical practice in the U.S. and in many other countries. Working on these Institute of Medicine committees was really satisfying. I am sure that current and future research will provide an even more nuanced understanding of the best guidelines for different subgroups of women when the IOM recommendations are next revised. Because health is so important, and mothers and children represent the future of our society, even after more than 25 years of studying these questions, I still find my work enormously satisfying.