U. SOUTHAMPTON (UK) — Independent of how thin or overweight a mother is, what she eats while pregnant influences her child’s risk of obesity years later.
“We have shown for the first time that susceptibility to obesity cannot simply be attributed to the combination of our genes and our lifestyle, but can be triggered by influences on a baby’s development in the womb, including what the mother ate,” says Keith Godfrey, professor of epidemiology and human development at the University of Southampton.
“A mother’s nutrition while pregnant can cause important epigenetic changes that contribute to her offspring’s risk of obesity during childhood.”
The study is published in the journal Diabetes.
Researchers measured epigenetic change in nearly 300 children at birth and found it strongly predicted the degree of obesity when the child reached 6 or 9 years old. What was surprising was the size of the effect—children vary in how fat they are, but measurement of the epigenetic change at birth allowed the researchers to predict 25 percent of this variation.
The epigenetic changes, which alter the function of DNA without changing the actual DNA sequence inherited from the mother and father, can also influence how a person responds to lifestyle factors such as diet or exercise for many years to come.
“This study indicates that measures to prevent childhood obesity should be targeted on improving a mother’s nutrition and her baby’s development in the womb. These powerful new epigenetic measurements might prove useful in monitoring the health of the child,” Godfrey says.
“This study provides compelling evidence that epigenetic changes, at least in part, explain the link between a poor start to life and later disease risk,” says Mark Hanson, professor of human development and health.
“It strengthens the case for all women of reproductive age having greater access to nutritional, education, and lifestyle support to improve the health of the next generation, and to reduce the risk of the conditions such as diabetes and heart disease which often follow obesity.”
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