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Dieting In Pregnancy Linked With Obesity & Diabetes In Offspring

There’s a lot of pressure to keep the pounds down during pregnancy these days but here’s a study showing that too little food is problematic, as well.

Researchers at the University of Manchester fed ewes a low calorie diet around the time of conception and found that their offspring had altered DNA in the region of the brain that regulates food intake and glucose– this change increased the chance of diabetes and obesity in adulthood. Apparently studying sheep is helpful in our understanding of humans.

Lead researcher Anne White said in a news release: “Our findings provide a reason why twins are more likely to get diabetes [they also looked at twins] but we have also shown that mothers who don’t have enough food around the time of conception may have a child who grows up with an increased risk of obesity.”

“This study shows that expecting mothers have to walk a really fine line when it comes to diet and nutrition,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, where the study was published. “It also shows that epigenetics is the ‘new genetics’: both our DNA and the histones in which it is wrapped are susceptible to binge eating and dieting — we are what our mothers ate.”

It will be interesting to see where this research leads.  I have a hunch that “dieting” means too many different things for human mothers and we have more to learn before having a panic attack about a low-carb stint at the time of conception. The field of epigenetics– the study of how genes can be activated or deactivated as a result of the environment in the womb– is fascinating. Much of what I’ve read on the subject suggests that common sense prevail: We should eat well and frequently but not too much. Or too little.

In her delightfully comprehensible book on the topic,”Origins: How The First Nine Months Can Shape The Rest of Your Life,” Annie Murphy Paul tells the story of the “Hunger Winter” of 1944. The Nazis cut off food supplies to a region of Holland for several months. Among the hungry Dutch citizens were a good number of pregnant women. Researchers found many years later that the offspring of these calorie-restricted moms were much more likely to grow up to be obese, have diabetes and develop heart problems. The reason? The fetal environment (with severely restricted calories) essentially sent a message to the fetus’ DNA to develop in a way that would be best suited to a world of famine. Then the babies are born into a world of plenty and they just weren’t built for it. According to Paul, “The timing of the nutritional deprivation during pregnancy seems to matter: the risk of diabetes is especially high among people exposed to malnutrition in mid- to late- gestation, while the risk for heart disease is three times higher in people whose mothers were starved very early in pregnancy.”

Given the pressures to keep weight down in pregnancy, this study is a good reminder that it’s not really about being skinny but about being healthy. And it gets us back to the crucial message that eating can be a really an enjoyable, important part of being an expectant mother.

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