High Fat Diet May Cause Birth Defects


A new study suggests that some of the most common birth defects may be tied to maternal fat intake, both before and during pregnancy. The study, conducted in the U.K. at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics at Oxford University, found the risk for both congenital heart disease and cleft palate  was higher in mice who were fed a high fat diet than in mice who ate a balanced diet.

But diet is far from the only factor. Read on to see what else matters…

It seems that a fatty diet alone is not enough to trigger defects. There must also be a genetic element.  The risk of defects climbed exponentially when combined with certain genetic changes in the affected mice. In some cases mothers who were fed the high fat diet had some offspring who were normal, and others with birth defects, according to their genes. This study clearly shows the interaction of environmental and genetic factors, reinforcing the theory that many diseases and disorders are the result of the combination of both.

The study has people feeling optimistic, because dietary influences are relatively easy to control. Says Study leader Jamie Bentham of Oxford: “We are excited by this as it suggests that congenital heart defects may be preventable by measures such as altering maternal diet,”

So if these findings are applicable to human women as well as mice, and if women are able to eat less fat, they may be able to reduce the number of these birth defects. The study did not specify the quantity of fat, or the type—and clearly there’s a wide range of fats with both negative and positive influences on the body. It’s also not clear whether it’s the fat itself that might be causing the problems, or the tendency of fat to store toxins from other sources.  It will be interesting to hear more details and whether there are dietary recommendations passed on to women as a result of these findings.In the meantime keep in mind that the risk for these birth defects is quite small overall, and in some cases these defects are mild or operable.

photo: Christian Cable/flickr