What You Eat Today Could Affect Your Great-Grandchildren
By Janice Wood
~ 3 min read
The day I found out I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, I gave up my soda addiction. No more caffeine for me, or artificial sweeteners.
Something I thought was impossible to do — give up that daily rush of energy — was surprisingly easy because I was doing it for my baby.
I believe most mothers-to-be are the same: They’ll do just about anything to ensure their children have a healthy, happy life.
And that may help them change how they eat as new evidence emerges that what women eat while they are pregnant can affect not just their children, but future generations.
For instance, a recent mouse study from Washington University in St. Louis found that mothers who eat high-fat, high-sugar diets can predispose multiple generations to metabolic problems — even if their offspring consume healthy diets.
The study found that the mother’s diet is important even before she becomes pregnant.
That’s because obesity can cause genetic abnormalities that are passed through the female bloodline to at least three generations, increasing the risk of obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the researchers.
“Our findings indicate that a mother’s obesity can impair the health of later generations,” said Kelle H. Moley, MD, the School of Medicine’s James P. Crane Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and senior author of the study. “This is particularly important because more than two-thirds of reproductive-age women in the United States are overweight or obese.”
The study showed that a mother’s obesity — and its associated metabolic problems — can be inherited through mitochondrial DNA in the unfertilized egg.
Mitochondria often are referred to as the powerhouses of cells because they supply energy for metabolism and other biochemical processes. These cellular structures have their own sets of genes, inherited only from mothers, not fathers, the researchers explained.
The study’s data showed that pregnant mice with metabolic syndrome can transmit dysfunctional mitochondria through the female bloodline to three generations, according to Moley said.
For the study, the researchers started feeding the mice a high-fat, high-sugar diet from about six weeks before conception through to when the babies were weaned. The diet was made up of about 60 percent fat and 20 percent sugar.
“This mimics more of the Western diet,” Moley said. “Basically, it’s like eating fast food every day.”
The babies were then fed a diet of standard rodent chow, which is high in protein and low in fat and sugar.
Despite the healthy diet, the pups, grand pups and great-grand pups developed insulin resistance and other metabolic problems. Researchers also found abnormal mitochondria in muscle and skeletal tissue of the mice.
But wait, it gets worse — for us.
“It’s important to note that in humans, in which the diets of children closely mirror those of their parents, the effects of maternal metabolic syndrome may be greater than in our mouse model,” Moley said.
She added that more research is needed to determine if a diet low in fat and sugar, as well as regular exercise, may reverse genetic metabolic abnormalities.
“In any case, eating nutritiously is critical,” Moley said. “Over the decades, our diets have worsened, in large part due to processed foods and fast foods. We’re seeing the effects in the current obesity crisis. Research, including this study, points to poor maternal nutrition and a predisposition to obesity.”
WHAT IF THERE ARE NO FUTURE GENERATIONS?
Another study, again with mice, found that a mother’s obesity and poor nutrition during pregnancy can lead to their daughters experiencing problems with fertility.
Specifically, it found that those daughters had fewer eggs than normal.
“Infertility can have devastating impacts on individuals and families, and our study will help to better identify women who are at risk of experiencing problems with their fertility,” said Catherine Aiken, MB/BChir, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories and MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “We hope to be able to devise ways to maintain future fertility for children who faced a very difficult nutritional environment in the womb.”
For this study, the researchers fed one group of mice a high-fat, high-sugar diet and another group a normal, healthy diet during pregnancy.
The study found that the daughters of mothers who ate a high-fat, high-sugar diet had low egg reserves. This was true no matter what the daughters ate.
To find the cause of the low egg reserves, researchers examined the ovaries of the daughters and discovered changes that disrupted the normal protection against damaging free radicals in the ovaries, as well as energy production.
While the study was done with mice, it “seems likely” the findings would translate to humans, according to scientists.
In light of these studies, it appears that prenatal care should actually begin months before a baby is conceived. Women thinking of becoming pregnant may want to ensure that they are eating a healthy, nutritious diet, rather than a Standard American Diet — also known as SAD.
While it takes a bit more effort in an environment where fast food restaurants are on every corner and healthy food is a bit more time-consuming to prepare, it is well worth the effort when you think that what you are eating today could impact your family for generations to come.