The effects of poor nutrition are not limited to a single generation. A new study published in The FASEB Journal has suggested that parents who received inadequate nutrition in the womb can impact their own children’s growth. Specifically, mothers who were malnourished in utero can bear smaller babies, while fathers who experienced the same nutritional deficiencies can have children who were shorter by the age of two than other children of the same age.
To come to these results, the researchers looked at rural Gambia. They selected this West African country for their study due to the climate: the single, annual rainy season creates a “hunger” and “harvest” period. Mothers and fathers who were born during the hunger period were noted for being “nutritionally stressed in utero”, and from here the researchers analyzed the effects on their offspring.
Using 31 multiple regression tests, the team analyzed Gambian children who were born between 1972 and 2011, scrutinizing the consequences of parental birth seasons on the participants’ birth weights and lengths, and their size at two years old.
“Our results indicate that periods of nutritional restriction in a parent’s fetal life can have intergenerational consequences in human populations,” the researchers wrote in their study. They found that mothers influenced the growth of babies in the womb, while fathers impacted postnatal growth. (Related: Is this why children have poor motor skills? Vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy linked to lack of physical coordination in children)
Dr. Andrew M. Prentice, one of the authors of the study and a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, said of their findings: “This study shows that it may take several generations to eliminate growth failure and stunting because of these intergenerational influences.”
Prentice then added: “Nutritional interventions such as dietary supplementation programs in poor populations are frequently undermined by an apparent absence of immediate impact.”
On the other side of the spectrum, another study found that consuming a high-fat diet during pregnancy is just as harmful to succeeding generations. According to the researchers behind this relatively recent study, eating fat-rich foods while pregnant can heighten a family’s risk of breast cancer for up to three generations.
The researchers used a mouse model for their study and placed pregnant mice on high-fat diets on the tenth day of their gestation, a time which corresponds with a pregnant woman’s second trimester. Any genetic changes that occur during this period of development are passed on to the offspring in the womb. These genetic changes were observed in the second and third of the high-fat mice generations, which included reduced anti-cancer immunity, greater breast cancer risk, and boosted resistance to cancer treatment.
“Studies have shown that pregnant women consume more fats than non-pregnant women, and the increase takes place between the first and second trimester,” remarked study author Dr. Leena Hilakivi-Clarke. “Of the 1.7 million new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2012, 90 percent have no known causes. Putting these facts, and our finding, together, really does give food for thought.”
Whether consuming too little or too much, the nutritional choices that parents make can leave a lasting impression on their progeny. Both studies can be viewed as cautionary tales so that parents can make the right decisions on dietary practices for the sake of their children, and their children’s children.