Childhood obesity: Mother's food choices alter infant's DNA

April 28, 2011

Pregnant women who consume low levels of carbohydrates can change the DNA of the fetus and increase the risk of obesity in childhood, a British study finds.

Pregnant women who consume low levels of carbohydrates can change the DNA of the fetus and increase the risk of obesity in childhood, a British study finds.

The study, published online April 6 in Diabetes, examined umbilical cord samples from healthy newborns for markers of epigenetic change: alterations in gene function, which animal studies have demonstrated can be caused by changes in diet. Researchers at the University of Southampton found epigenetic markers in the children of women whose diets in early pregnancy were low in carbohydrates and then demonstrated a strong association between the markers and obesity in the children at 6 and 9 years of age. The changes occurred in the RXRA gene, which makes a receptor for vitamin A. Vitamin A plays a role in the way cells process fat.

“Our finding suggest a substantial component of metabolic disease risk has a prenatal developmental basis. Perinatal epigenetic analysis may have utility in identifying individual vulnerability to later obesity and metabolic disease,” the authors write. They note that the epigenetic effect on obesity in childhood was “considerably greater” in their study than the effect of birth weight and was independent of the mother’s weight.

“What is surprising is that it explains a quarter of the difference in the fatness of children 6 to 9 years later,” says lead author Keith Godfrey, BM, PhD, FRCP. “It is both a fascinating and potentially important piece of research.”

“All women who become pregnant get advice about diet, but it is not always high up the agenda of health professionals,” Godfrey notes. “The research suggests women should follow the advice as it may have a long-term influence on the baby’s health after it is born.”