Poor Diet During Pregnancy Increases Childs Risk of Obesity and Diabetes

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Poor nutrition during pregnancy can cause DNA changes in a woman’s unborn baby that significantly increases the chances of the child later developing obesity and type 2 diabetes. These changes, researchers found, occur regardless of weight status, making quality of a pregnancy diet just as important as quantity.

Researchers with the University of Southampton examined the DNA of 300 children at birth and followed their health progression for up to nine years. The mothers were also surveyed about their diet during pregnancy.

Inadequate Dietary Intake Could Lead to DNA Changes

Women who ate a poor diet while pregnant were more likely to have children with a greater degree of epigenetic changes – non-genetic DNA alterations that affect the function of certain genes. These changes caused the children to have a greater tendency to be overweight by age 9. Because obese individuals are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, the researchers are calling this a “major public health challenge.”

Although previous research has suggested that epigenetic changes are more common in the offspring of overweight women, this study is the first to find that diet affects offspring health regardless of the mother’s weight status.

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Read: Unhealthy Nutrition During Pregnancy Risks Child's Health

"We have shown for the first time that susceptibility to obesity cannot simply be attributed to the combination of our genes and our lifestyle, but can be triggered by influences on a baby's development in the womb, including what the mother ate," said Keith Godfrey, a professor at the University of Southampton.

Professor Peter Gluckman, from Auckland University’s Liggins Institute, suggests that the epigenetic changes may be linked to a low carbohydrate diet in the first trimester of pregnancy. An embryo fed a diet containing few carbohydrates could alter metabolism, increasing the tendency to store more fat. However, it is too soon to draw a definitive conclusion until further studies can confirm the association.

Read: Mother's High Fat Diet Increases Birth Defect Risk

"[The study] strengthens the case for all women of reproductive age having greater access to nutritional, education and lifestyle support to improve the health of the next generation, and to reduce the risk of the conditions such as diabetes and heart disease which often follow obesity," said Mark Hanson, Director of the University’s Human Development and Health Unit. The findings will be published in the April 26th issue of the journal Diabetes.

Women who are pregnant should consume about 300 calories more per day than prior to pregnancy. About one-third of the increase should come from lean protein sources, while the remainder is encouraged to be consumed in the form of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Expectant mothers should also ensure an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals in the daily diet, particularly focusing on folate, calcium, iron, and vitamin C.

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