Children at Risk From Unhealthy Diet During Pregnancy

Health Writer

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During pregnancy, women may be tempted to 'let it go,' consuming a diet filled with treats. They crave the salty, the sweet and the creamy and typically consume large quantities of unhealthy, processed foods. After all, they’re going to gain weight anyway, right? But a study published in June 2016 found that high fat, sugary food choices during pregnancy may affect the metabolic health of future generations of offspring.

We all know the mantra, "you are what you eat." It suggests that the quantity and quality of the foods we choose to eat have significant impact on our body size and health. More recently, studies have suggested that what a woman consumes before pregnancy (and dad’s diet, too) can impact the future health or weight of her offspring. Certainly studies have confirmed that a woman’s diet during pregnancy directly influences her health. An unhealthy diet and excessive weight gain can increase the risk of developing conditions like gestational diabetes, and impacts the future health of her child. Despite the child’s future dietary choices, the stage may already be set for metabolic and health concerns.

The June 2016 study, published in Cell Reports, suggests that dietary choices in pregnancy go far beyond the health and well-being of a woman’s direct offspring. High fat and high sugar choices may predispose future generation to have metabolic problems, even if they consume a relatively healthy diets. The study, conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is the first study to suggest that prior to pregnancy a woman’s obesity can cause genetic changes and abnormalities that are passed through her direct bloodline to three future generations. These abnormalities can increase the risk of future generations developing obesity-related health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In the study, mice were fed a high fat, high sugar chow diet, comprised of 60 percent fat, 20 percent sugar to mimic the American diet of fast food. The feedings took place over six weeks prior to conception until weaning time of the pups. The pups were then fed a diet of standard rodent chow, high in protein and low in fat and sugar. Despite the introduction of a healthy diet, the first, second and third generation of pups developed insulin resistance and other metabolic problems. On examination, the researchers found abnormalities in the mitochondria (powerhouse of the cell that supplies energy for metabolism) of muscle and skeletal tissue of the three generations. Mitochondria of offspring inherit genes only from the mother, not the father.

The researchers concluded that obesity (in pregnancy) and related metabolic abnormalities caused dysfunctional mitochondria that persisted at least through three generations of the same bloodline. It appeared that the mothers’ eggs carried information that programmed mitochondrial dysfunction.

If you consider that currently two thirds of reproductive-age women in the U.S. are overweight or obese, this study offers a rather alarming finding. It suggests that overweight and obese women entering pregnancy have a strong possibility of setting the stage for metabolic dysfunction in generations of offspring, even if the future generations commit to a healthier diet. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy is harmful to mom and the growing baby. Even more disturbing is that in the U.S., the mother’s unhealthy dietary pattern is often the same diet that her offspring consume. This may further enhance the negative health outcomes noted in this mouse study. More research will determine if commitment to a diet low in unhealthy fat and sugar can reverse the mitochondria abnormalities and lower the risk of obesity and insulin resistance.

As a health coach, it’s extremely frustrating for me to hear women crow about their unhealthy diets during pregnancy, exalting in this period when “it doesn’t matter what I eat because I’m going to get big anyway.” If there is ANY time during which your diet matters, it’s the period before and during pregnancy. According to this mouse study, you are setting the stage for the health of your offspring and future generations! If you are considering getting pregnant, know that losing excess weight and improving your diet will have a direct impact on your health, and the health of your offspring and future generations. Obesity is tremendously intractable to treatment, so limiting the disease through your actions can help limit its prevalence in future generations.

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.  As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.