High Fat Diet During Pregnancy Linked to Breast Cancer in Generations of Offspring

New research shows a connection between mom’s exposure to a high-fat diet (or excess estrogen) during pregnancy and an increased risk of breastfeeding for multiple generations of female offspring.

What’s significant about this research is that pregnancy diet seems to affect the way genes are expressed not only in babies but in grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I don’t know nearly enough about epigenetics– the study of how genes are activated or not activated during gestation– to casually explain how this works, but here’s what I got from Science Daily: High fat diet and excess estrogen both change the “DNA methylation patterns” in the baby girl’s breast and make it more sensitive to carcinogens later on. And this: “…the risk of some ‘familial’ breast cancers originate from biological alterations caused by maternal diet during pregnancy that not only affect the directly exposed fetus but also the fetal germ cells, transmitting the increased mammary cancer risk to subsequent generations.”

The research comes out of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and used rats, so scientists are in the preliminary stages of understanding how this all works. The study was published this week in Nature Communications.

“We know that maternal diet can have long lasting effects on an offspring’s health, but this study demonstrates, for the first time, that a high fat diet or excess estrogen can affect multiple generations of a rat’s offspring, resulting in an increase in breast cancer not only in their daughters, but granddaughters and great granddaughters,” says the study’s senior investigator, Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, Ph.D.

“We know from human studies that daughters whose mothers took the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) to reduce pregnancy complications, or who had a birth weight of more than 8.8 pounds are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Our study suggests their offspring may also be at risk,” Hilakivi-Clarke says.  Sonia de Assis, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher working with Hilakivi-Clarke, added: “It’s easy to see how this study possibly has human health implications to be considered since fatty foods are endemic in our society, and low levels of chronic exposure to endocrine disruptors — substances that have hormonal activity such as estrogen — have been found in food and drinking water.”

The researchers also said that we may soon be able to detect “epigenetic inheritance of breast cancer risk” via a blood test and, more importantly, the affects of familial exposure to excess estrogen/fat may be reversed.

It’s so scary to think that what you eat and how you live during pregnancy can affect many generations of kids but it’s also amazing that we can affect our DNA with something so simple as nutrition (and the less simple regulation of estrogen-mimicking chemicals).


Ceridwen Morris (CCE) is a childbirth educator and the co-author of the pregnancy and birth guide From The Hips. Follow her blogging on Facebook.


Photo: Coriander/Flickr

Article Posted 4 years Ago
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