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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Unborn kids can be nutritionally ‘set for life'
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By Eric Uthus

We've all heard the saying, “You are what you eat!” But in the last several decades, scientists also have observed that, “You are what your mother ate!”

Maternal nutrition and subsequent health effects on newborns long has been studied. Perhaps, that is why we take it for granted that maternal well-being has important implications for the health of the baby. However, in the late 1970s, a causative link between early life environmental factors, including nutrition in the womb, and disease in later life was suggested by researchers.

Work by English physician David Barker in 1992 established the idea that the current epidemic of coronary heart disease in Western countries might have originated during fetal life. Dr. Barker noted a relationship between low birth weight - as a result of undernutrition of the mother - and increased risk of cardiovascular disease in later life of the offspring.

However, this relationship did not hold true in all of the offspring of all undernourished mothers. Most interestingly, undernutrition of the mother was shown to be actually beneficial to her unborn child - if after birth, the child's nutrition continued to be less than adequate.

Ironically, however, if nutrition became plentiful after birth, the offspring would be predisposed to obesity and hence cardiovascular problems. Barker showed that the fetus somehow adapted to the undernutrition of the mother by preparing itself for a lifetime of similar, suboptimal nutrition.

The idea that the health of a woman during pregnancy could affect her child's chances of developing chronic diseases as an adult was termed the “Barker Hypothesis.” In recent years, the hypothesis has been expanded to include other diseases such as cancer and obesity. It generally is referred to as the “fetal origins of adult disease hypothesis” or “fetal programming.”

Most of the early fetal programming studies on obesity focused on attempting to understand why low-birth weight would increase the risk of adult obesity. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that high-birth weight also can result in childhood and adult obesity.

The mechanisms that result in obesity of both low- and high-birth weight children are not completely understood, but one area that is highly studied is gene expression.

It is clear that nutritional influences may affect gene expression in several ways. First, nutrients may act temporarily and reversibly through the normal processes of gene promotion and repression. Second, nutritional influences can lead to a modification in some genes that results in their either turning on or off. This process can be long-lasting and in some cases, permanent. It is through these two processes that fetal programming most likely takes place.

Fetal programming is becoming widely studied and is an extremely important area of research today. What makes this area of research so important is the fact that diet and environment (smoking and alcohol consumption, for example), which are controllable risk factors, play such crucial roles.

If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, do not smoke or drink alcohol and try to follow the pregnancy-related weight gains that are recommended by your physician. Eat well-balanced meals that contain plenty of fruits and vegetables - these types of diets will ensure that you receive the nutrients you need.

And fathers, do your part. It is easier for you both to eat healthy and exercise if you work at it as a couple.

Remember, the health of your baby is at stake.


Last Modified: 12/5/2007