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You are what your mother eats

Can a mother’s pregnancy diet influence her child’s future health? Well, experts say that individuals are what their mothers actually eat rather than what they eat, reports Sade Oguntola.

Up until now, genetic studies have been unable to interpret fully the process by which some diseases including type 2 diabetes and obesity are inherited.

But what a woman eats when she is pregnant can affect her child’s risk of obesity, regardless of how fat or thin she is, and what her baby weighs at birth,

Researchers that uncover how a mother’s diet during pregnancy could permanently affect her child’s attributes said this could explain how diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity are inherited.

According to them, it is not just genes and lifestyle that affects a person’s risk of conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, what happens when the person is still developing in the womb,  including what the mother eats, also matters.

The discovery, which provides the missing link in the mystery of disease inheritance, also indicated that attributes, such as weight, could be shaped by genetic variation in an unexpected area of the genome.

In 2011, researchers in the journal Diabetes found that a process called epigenetic change alters the function of an unborn baby’s DNA in response to changes in the mother’s diet. These changes can be detected by sampling the umbilical cord at birth for “epigenetic markers” of obesity risk.

Dr Olusoji Jagun, consultant obstetrics and gynaecologist, Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital, Sagamu, Ogun State said that the fact that a mother’s nutrition while pregnant can contribute to her offspring’s risk of obesity during childhood occurs for several reasons.

According to him, “if a pregnant woman has an inherent tendency to become obese or is obese and now eats recklessly, she stands a chance of developing gestational diabetes. Due to this, her child has a higher tendency to develop obesity and hypertensive problems later in life.

“Of course, some also end up with mental retardation either as a result of a complication of diabetes or birth complication like birth asphyxia.”

He declared that diet in pregnancy and was highly important to ensure the health of the next generation, adding “more often we advise women to eat balanced and adequate meals in pregnancy so as to ensure proper development of their babies.”

The use of multivitamins and supplements in pregnancy, he said, is not necessary once the pregnant woman conforms to a diet that is balanced and adequate, including high intake of fruits and vegetables.

Avoidance of foods with free sugars such as soft drinks is also important. “Taking foods with free sugar can make the unborn baby very big unlike complex sugars,” he added

The term free sugars includes glucose, fructose and sucrose added to foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in syrups, honey and fruit juice. However, it does not apply to sugars found naturally in fresh fruit, vegetables or milk.

Also, babies born small for age due to growth retardation in the womb for reasons such as poor diet, state of health of the woman and congenital problems, Dr Jagun said a higher risk of developing chronic health challenges such as type 2 diabetes later in life.

Dr Adeola Afolabi, also a consultant obstetrics and gynaecologist, LAUTECH Teaching Hospital, Osogbo, Osun State, said that generally, genes and environment have a role to play in manifestation of diseases.

According to her, a recessive gene for a medical condition in an appropriate environment would manifest itself.

“Even if the gene for diabetes is recessive and the mother’s diet is bad, that increases the chances of her child later in life coming down with chronic diseases like diabetes. This is because the environment supports its manifestation,” she declared.

However, to ensure healthy mothers and babies, later in life, she said pregnant women are not supposed to eat for two as many women do.

Dr Afolabi declared: “By eating for two, they end up over-eating and as such end up with big babies and other conditions that are not good. We also encourage them to eat little amount of food at a time, but it may be frequent.

“Pregnancy hormones tend to release sugar into the blood so that the baby end up being exposed to lots of sugar. So those prone to diabetes or that has gestational diabetes should only eat small meals.

“Taking small but frequent meals is also advised because in pregnancy, the time it takes for food to digest is more than it is in other people.

“Of course, heavy eating will cause them a lot of discomfort; they may end up with abdominal pain, heartburn and even respiratory distress.

“In addition, increased intake of water is important to prevent constipation. On the average, many pregnant women experience constipation.”

Could environmental influences on parents affect their children? Environmental factors, such as diet, stress, and smoking, work alongside genetic factors in the womb environment can influence the attributes of offspring as adults.

Experts for instance, hypothesised that parents could pass on to their children traits that they acquire as a result of exposure to environmental influences. However, the extent to which environmental conditions impact future outcomes remains unclear.

Factors that affect the offspring’s future health outcomes are thought to include what the mother consumes while she is pregnant or lactating, which molecules are present in the father’s semen and the microbiota of either parent.

Although experts say that mother’s influence also appeared to be greater than that of the father on their offspring’s future health outcomes, epigenetic factors in genes play an important role in passing on the risk of obesity and diabetes from parents to offspring.