Could maternal diet be predisposing children to obesity?

Tuesday, 10 January, 2017

A US study has found that diet composition around the time of pregnancy may influence whether offspring become obese.

The study, conducted at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) using animal models, found that giving females a typical American, or western, diet appeared to set the next generation up for lifelong obesity issues.

“Your diet itself matters, not just whether you are gaining excess weight or developing gestational diabetes,” said TSRI Associate Professor Eric Zorrilla, who led the study in collaboration with Tim R Nagy of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Barry E Levin of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center of East Orange, New Jersey, and Rutgers University.

It’s not just about weight

The researchers studied two lines of rats, one selectively bred to be obesity-resistant to a high-fat diet and one bred to be unusually vulnerable. Rats from each group were fed either a diet with the same overall fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate and protein levels as a typical western diet, or a lower fat, higher grain control diet.

The scientists found that female rats given a western diet in the weeks leading up to pregnancy, during pregnancy and during nursing had offspring more prone to obesity at birth, during early adolescence and — many months later — through adulthood. This occurred even if the mothers themselves did not overeat and maintained a healthy weight, body fat and insulin status.

Zorrilla said the results were surprising because, whereas previous studies had shown that overweight mothers were more likely to have overweight offspring, the new findings suggest that diet alone can make a difference independent of weight gain.

The western diet seemed to set in motion a metabolic ‘program’ that lasted throughout the rat’s life. Although these rats slimmed down during puberty and early adulthood, they still showed a lower basal metabolic rate (less energy expended while at rest) and higher food intake during that time, which led to a return of obesity in mid-adulthood.

“What we found interesting was that you sometimes see the same thing in humans, when a kid goes through a growth spurt,” said study first author Jen Frihauf.

The researchers also noted that fewer females on the western diet were able to reproduce, and those that did reproduce had fewer offspring. “This wasn’t the focus of the study, but it supports the idea that a western diet promotes infertility in mothers vulnerable to diet-induced obesity,” said Zorrilla.

The researchers also identified elevated levels of several molecules, such as insulin and hormones called leptin and adiponectin, starting at birth in both the western diet and genetically vulnerable offspring. This hormone profile may serve as an early biomarker for detecting obesity risk.

The study — Maternal Western Diet Increases Adiposity Even in Male Offspring of Obesity-Resistant Rat Dams: Early Endocrine Risk Markers — was published in the American Journal of Physiology.

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