Maternal diet may have long-term effects

Could what you eat during pregnancy really affect the health of your child as an adult? Research now suggests that mothers whose diets are high in fat during pregnancy and lactation might be putting their baby at risk of more than just short-term complications.

Woman eating chocolates while pregnant

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Infants born to mothers who ate too much fat during pregnancy are at risk of early puberty as well as adult obesity. What is even more shocking is that maternal diet during pregnancy may go so far as to affect an infant’s unborn children. Ingesting too much fat during pregnancy can have negative effects on the baby that last their entire life.

Research published in the journal Cell earlier this year used mice to demonstrate this concept. Mice who were fed high-fat diets later in pregnancy and during lactation produced offspring who were heavier later in life. Deborah Sloboda, a professor of biomedical science at McMaster University, has done extensive research that suggests a link between poor nutrition (both low-calorie and high-fat diets) during pregnancy and increased rates of obesity and early puberty in children.

In a study Sloboda did with rats, she found that the offspring of rat mothers who had poor nutrition during pregnancy were heavier than those fed healthy diets, regardless of whether they were given a normal or a high-fat diet after birth. This suggests that babies born to mothers who ate too much fat while pregnant may have a harder time reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. This puts them at risk of diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

The proposed explanation is that, from an evolutionary standpoint, poor nutrition may represent poor living circumstances, leading to earlier puberty and earlier pregnancies as a way to reproduce before death. However, with obesity rates on the rise, these effects are occurring frequently and with numerous health consequences. It is an unfortunate vicious cycle, as a high-fat diet during pregnancy often produces obese offspring who are more at risk for the same health consequences during their own pregnancy.

The list of potential risks of a diet high in fat during pregnancy is not limited to early puberty and a change in metabolic rate of the offspring. In fact, the list is quite long and extends into both the acute and chronic categories. Mothers who consume a high-fat diet during pregnancy are often at risk for gestational diabetes, which can put the baby at risk of lung immaturity, low blood sugars, preterm labour, congenital anomalies, being born too large or too small in size as well as stillbirth.

Ultimately diet advice for a pregnant woman does not differ greatly from the advice given to everyone else. During the first trimester, a woman requires a maximum of 100 extra calories; during the second trimester, she will need about 300 extra calories; and during the third trimester, she will need about 450 extra calories. Those extra calories do not mean extra fat.

More on maternal health

10 Common pregnancy fears and how to get over them
Is it safe to count calories during pregnancy?
5 Things no one tells you about your body after pregnancy

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