You are what you eat, as the old saying goes. Maybe so, but increasingly researchers are finding that you are also what your mother ate – maternal nutrition has profound consequences on the health of offspring.
It is well known that smaller babies are more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes. More recently, poor nutrition around the time of fertilisation and egg implantation have also been shown to be detrimental in adult life.
Now Adam Watkins and colleagues, writing in The Journal of Physiology, have shown that, even before conception, maternal diet is vital to the health of the next generation. Even as the egg first leaves the ovary and begins to mature, it is subject to nutritional deficiencies in the mother that can profoundly affect its viability.
The researchers fed female mice on a special low-protein diet during one three-and-a-half day ovulatory cycle, then let the mice mate. They studied the offspring and the results were profound, with the pups suffering from an array of maladies.
"They were hypertensive, had poorly functioning blood vessels that did not relax properly when treated with reagents that should dilate them, had kidneys of abnormal structure and size, and exhibited reduced exploratory activity," Watkins explained.
"Obesity has increased dramatically over the last few years and needs to be tackled urgently," says Dr Pat Goodwin, Head of Pathogens, Immunology and Population Health at the Wellcome Trust. "This study supports the idea that there are many different risk factors that can lead to someone being overweight and developing related health problems. Pregnancy can be a difficult time for many mothers, but it is important that they are aware that what they eat may affect their offspring."
"Whilst I can understand a direct link between mother and baby due to the physical processes of dietary intake etc. Have there been studies to identify whether there is a link between the fathers diet and the weight of the child? Maybe from the psychological aspect: family dynamics, dietary believes etc." - David Rootes, Edgehill University, West Lancs