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Poor Pregnancy Diet for Mom, Genetic Shift To Diabetes for Baby

By Heather Turgeon |

Pregnancy diet and diabetes risk

Diet makes for subtle changes to fetus' insulin cells

As moms, we’ve really been getting a talking-to lately about our diet and weight in pregnancy. Last year, for example, a large study in the Lancet showed a strong connection between a pregnant woman’s weight gain and the size of her baby (even factoring in the passing down of genes). Since birthweight is related to BMI later in life, clinicians and public health officials say this could be one piece of the obesity epidemic puzzle.

And this week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cambridge scientists reported on a study using a mouse model that showed a mom’s bad diet caused real changes to fetal development — ones that mimicked type 2 diabetes.

Here’s what they found (and why dad is not off the hook):

The researchers gave mouse moms either diets balanced for protein (a 20% protein diet), or low in protein (8%) — both with the same number of calories overall.

The moms fed the low protein diet had fetuses with compromised beta cells (a hallmark of type 2 diabetes, in which insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas don’t function optimally). The production of a protein called Hnf4a in beta cells was reduced through “epigenetic” changes (this means changes in how a gene is expressed, not a change to the gene itself).

So an unbalanced diet in pregnancy can make small genetic changes that affect a baby’s metabolism.

But remember, we saw a similar experiment performed on mice dads, and the outcome was that a heavy dad with a poor diet upped the risk of type 2 diabetes for the offspring. So having a good diet for the future healthy of our babies isn’t just a mom’s responsibility.

Image: flickr

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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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6 thoughts on “Poor Pregnancy Diet for Mom, Genetic Shift To Diabetes for Baby

  1. goddess says:

    Excellent- now waiters in restaurants can refuse to serve women foods they don’t think are healthy enough for the baybeeeeee. Or we can lock her up in an institution and force feed them to her – for the baybeeee’s sake.

  2. jan says:

    oh geez. Maybe i’m just moody… but, this article made me feel bad. i gained 35 pounds during pregnancy, with a healthy pro-protein diet- had a huge, healthy baby girl, 41 weeks at 9.4lbs…
    She’s now 18 months, 98th % for height, 50% for weight, incredibly healthy,sweet and bright. I know I shouldn’t be worried, but in my opinion the article could have been written better. I understand it wants us to see the link of diet and birth weight… but you could touch on healthy weight gain too…

    What do I know?

  3. heatherturgeon says:

    @Jan I really hear that — there’s so much to say about this issue and the context around it. The article I linked in the beginning (which is my feature story on the topic) gives much more background. And from what I understand, gaining 35 pounds is great. Here’s the full article, and I hope you get a better feeling from it :) http://www.babble.com/pregnancy/pregnancy-health/big-baby-weight-pregnancy-gain/

  4. Gretchen Powers says:

    Animal studies are not generally considered to make cases for advising on human behavior one way or another…basically they are to build a case for further studies in humans. Of course, a study of this nature would have to be observational and not controlled…I think it comes down to common sense (which I guess is not all that common or is ignored?)…eat healthfully when you’re pregnant, gain an appropriate amount of weight, don’t use it as a license to put away daily pints of ice cream and donuts, etc.

  5. heatherturgeon says:

    Wise advice indeed! And I agree we can’t take a study like this as direct clinical advice for moms. Using animal models is a way of understanding basic biological systems. But in this case, evidence is gathering around how the uterine environment (including mom’s diet) influences baby, so a finding like this falls in line. And you’re right, we certainly couldn’t do a controlled experiment in human moms!

  6. Gretchen Powers says:

    The science is fascinating, that is true!

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