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Does a Maternal Vegetarian Diet Cause Hypospadias?

Photo by avlxyzCan a maternal vegetarian diet cause birth defects?

Can a maternal vegetarian diet cause birth defects?

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.


  1. My first born had hypospadius. The urethral opening was about 5mm off true, pointing downwards. My son will never be a stand up pee’er as a result :) He did have a repair but it didn’t really work.

    I would be inclined to agree that a nutritional source were at the cause.

    Firstly, the body wants to follow the normal path, so being a vegetarian or having a poor diet doesn’t automatically mean your sons will have hypospadius. However, it sure would increase the liklihood of mutation. While I wasn’t vegetarian, I had a very typical – and very nutrient poor – North American diet of heavily processed foods. I typically ate things that were “low fat”, boxed and multi-processed. I know now that this type of diet is incredibly low in nutrients. Not having optimal nutrients would mean my body wasn’t working as well as it should have while I was pregnant making it easier for mutations to happen.

    Now, I’m not crazy about eating super healthy or anything. But, I do now feel that the bulk of any diet needs to be made up of whole foods (at a minimum, and then traditionally/naturally grown and raised foods are best after that). I think my lack of whole foods made it easier for the hyspospadius to occur.

    Just my 2 cents :)

  2. Thank you for posting this! There are so many synthetic hormones everywhere you turn it seems, it is no wonder such defects are showing up in our poor little boys.

  3. I’m glad you followed up on this! I’m not certain that veganhealth.org would be an appropriate or unbiased source, your best bet is to read the original studies and reports.

    Researchers in the 2000 British study concluded, “As vegetarians have a greater exposure to phytoestrogens than do omnivores, these results support the possibility that phytoestrogens have a deleterious effect on the developing male reproductive system.” after finding an increased incidence of hypospadias in boys whose mothers were vegetarian during pregnancy. (BJU International, January 2000)

    Other researchers reported, “Investigations into the etiology of hypospadias have shown potential links to estrogen effects in utero from increased phytoestrogen intake in maternal vegetarian diets, and rare cases of genetic mutations in 5-alpha reductase type II.” (Current Urology Reports, April 2001)

    Others have linked hypospadias directly to the soy isoflavone genistein as it’s an endocrine disruptor. Interestingly, they found that vegetarian mothers eating non-organic foods were more likely to give birth to boys with hypospadias, and they linked this to the fungicide vinclozolin.

    I definitely think you’re onto something with reference to plastics and other external hormone disruptors in relation to reproductive health (but they should affect omnivores and vegetarians equally, unless you think vegetarians suffer higher exposure to BPA, which I don’t think is the case). On that note, there’s evidence that pthalate exposure is also linked to hypospadias.

  4. @Jenny, you are right about my source’s bias, but they really did research and include tables that I found helped digest the info out there. Also, you make a good point about the chemicals in plastics being equal amongst omnivores and vegetarians.

    Interestingly, my son was born with an undescended testicle. Could my vegetarian diet have contributed to this? I’ve never done research on the subject and did blame the Nalgene bottle that I drank my hot pregnancy tea from while pregnant. The truth is, my son has had several birth defects, and you really just never know the cause or the answer.

    One point that I thought of after writing and researching (yet I did not research) was the incidence in India, where a large portion of the population ins vegetarian. You think it would show up more there then in western countries.

    Very interesting about the pesticide contribution too!

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