The Importance of a Healthy Diet during Pregnancy
Heavy alcohol or drug use during pregnancy is already known to potentially cause birth defects. Almost important as this is what a mother eats. The diet of a pregnant mother can have long lasting health implications for her child. A new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge has shown how an unhealthy diet creates a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer to the child later in life.
"What is most exciting about these findings is that we are now starting to really understand how nutrition during the first nine months of life spent in the womb shape our long term health by influencing how the cells in our body age," said Dr Susan Ozanne, the senior author on the paper and British Heart Foundation Senior Fellow from the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge.
Environmental factors during life can affect the development of genes and body tissue. However, it is within the womb that the body develops the most and the fastest. During this critical time of development, the negative effects of an unhealthy diet can be most amplified. The effects experienced in the womb can modify DNA which affects the child's body throughout its entire life.
To this point, there has been little understanding of the mechanisms which control the interaction between diet during pregnancy and gene expression in offspring in their adult life. The new research has shown that the gene Hnf4a, which is linked to type 2 diabetes, is regulated by the maternal diet's effect on the offspring's genes. They found that an unhealthy diet increases the rate at which these genetic modifications accumulate during the aging process.
The researchers tested their theory with experiments on rats. They altered the protein content of the mother rat’s diet during pregnancy. The offspring went on to develop type 2 diabetes. To prove the link, they analyzed the RNA from insulin secreting cells from the offspring's pancreas, and compared it to that of an offspring which had a healthy diet during gestation.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "We already know that a healthy pregnancy is important in shaping a child's health, and their risk of heart disease as they grow up. The reasons why are not well understood, but this study in rats adds to the evidence that a mother's diet may sometimes alter the control of certain genes in her unborn child. It's no reason for expectant mothers to be unduly worried. This research doesn't change our advice that pregnant women should try to eat a healthy, balanced diet."
Link to published article: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/03/03/1019007108.abstract