Fatty diet raises newborns’ diabetes risk

U. ILLINOIS (US) — A woman who eats a high-fat diet while pregnant may be putting her unborn child at risk for developing diabetes, even if she is not obese or diabetic herself.

“We found that exposure to a high-fat diet before birth modifies gene expression in the livers of offspring so they are more likely to overproduce glucose, which can cause early insulin resistance and diabetes,” says Yuan-Xiang Pan, professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois. The high-fat diet that caused the changes was a typical Western diet containing 45 percent fat.

“In recent years, the American diet has shifted to include many high-energy, high-fat, cafeteria-type, and fast foods,” he says.

Because the epigenetic marks can be easily evaluated, Pan says the study, published in the Journal of Physiology, can offer doctors a diagnostic tool to screen newborns born with this propensity to help keep blood sugar in a normal range and give them their best chance of avoiding diabetes.

For the study, obesity-resistant rats were fed either a high-fat or a control diet from the first day of gestation. Because the animals were not obese before the study began, the scientists were able to determine that diet alone had produced these effects.

“At birth, offspring in the high-fat group had blood sugar levels that were twice as high as those in the control group, even though their mothers had normal levels,” says doctoral student Rita Strakovsky.

The high-fat offspring also had epigenetic modifications to genes that regulate glucose metabolism. One of these modifications, the acetylation of histones, acts by loosening the DNA, making it easier for the gene to be transcribed.

While the epigenetic marks cannot be erased easily, if people are aware of them and change diet and lifestyle to compensate for their predisposition, it may be possible to delay or even prevent the development of diabetes.

“We’d like to see if diet after birth could alleviate this problem that was programmed before birth,” Pan says.

Although the study points to using epigenetics as a diagnostic tool, Strakovsky stresses the importance of making dietary recommendations more available to prevent the problem.

“Obstetrics patients rarely see a dietitian unless they’re having medical problems like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia. Doctors now tend to focus on how much weight a woman should gain in a healthy pregnancy. Although healthy weight gain is extremely important, nutritional guidance could be invaluable for all pregnant women and their babies,” she says.

Pregnant women should consume a balanced diet low in saturated fats, found in fattier cuts of meat, fast foods, pastries, and desserts. But they should also consume appropriate amounts of healthy fats, including good sources of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, which are important for unborn babies’ brain and neuron development.

Cold-water fish low in mercury, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, soybean and cod liver oils, walnuts, winter squash, are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Eggs, corn oil, whole-grain bread, poultry, and sunflower seeds and oil provide omega-6 fatty acids.

“Until now we didn’t realize that a mother’s diet during pregnancy had a long-term effect on the metabolic pathways that affect her child’s glucose production,” Pan says.

“Now that we know this, we urge pregnant women to eat a balanced low-fat diet that follows government guidelines. Then a woman can prime her child for a healthy life instead of future medical struggles.”

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chat2 Comments


  1. Mario

    It should be noted that the study methods reveals the “high fat diet” contains 172.8 grams of sucrose whereas the control has 100 grams.

    This type of discrepancy makes it impossible to see if it was the fat content indeed or the increase in sucrose (table sugar) that is responsible for the changes. Yet a whole set of conclusions and perspectives are based on the result assuming it was the fat difference.

  2. Diane Kress

    As a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with over 30 years of experience in weight reduction, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes….I would like to point out that the high fat diet was also a higher carb diet.

    If a pregnant woman has the genetic proprensity to metabolic syndrome (Metabolism B) she automatically over releases the fat gain hormone insulin in response to her own fluctuations in blood sugar that occur from her carb intake or liver release of glycogen.

    All women require more insulin in pregnancy but the woman who unnknowingly has Met B’s pancreas will exhibit greater fatigue as the pregnancy progresses. Week after week, the pancreas begins to produce less insulin. If the woman consumes a diet high in carbohydrates, her pancreas can’t accomodate the insulin need and her blood sugar will rise. As a result, the blood sugar that reaches her unborn baby as a fuel source will be higher than normal. The baby is being overfed in utero!

    . The baby’s pancreas is working perfectly so he will assimilate this excess blood sugar into excess fat on his body. Before birth, not only the size of fat cells but the number of fat cells can increase. These babies born of mothers with uncontrolled Met B are born “fatter”, have a .higher birth weight AND have a greater chance of obesity as they are born with a greater number of fat cells than they should have had.

    The problem here is a high carb diet….not a high fat diet! (Note the french fries in this article’s picture….yes they are high fat, but they are VERY high carb). Read more about Metabolism B in the Metabolism Miracle.

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