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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK
Diabetic legacy from the womb
A fatty diet could harm the unborn child
Women who eat too much fat, or drink too much alcohol during pregnancy could be programming their babies for unhealthy lives, say researchers.

Evidence from experiments on rats suggests that filling up on fatty snacks while pregnant could mean the child is more likely to get a condition closely related to diabetes.

The same condition also appeared in baby rats born to mothers fed a high-alcohol diet during pregnancy.

The findings reinforce the theory that unhealthy diets, either lacking vital nutrients - or containing too much of a particular food type, can contribute to serious health problems in children which may not manifest themselves until much later in life.

The research was carried out at the Brody School of Medicine in East Carolina University by Dr Sam Pennington.

I am not surprised that an excess of fat may have a damaging effect

Professor David Phillips, Medical Research Council
Two separate groups of pregnant rats were given a diet in which either 12%, or 35% of calories came from fat.

Scientists say that 12% represents a normal, healthy diet, and 35% a high-fat diet.

Similarly, some were given 35% of their calorie intake in ethanol alcohol.

When the rats reached adulthood, at 14 months old, their offspring were studied to see if their metabolisms had been altered by their experiences in the womb.

Metabolic changes

They found that in the high-alcohol group, rats had lasting changes to the way their muscle tissue helped regulate blood sugar levels, and reduced sensitivity to the hormone insulin, a key hormone in this process.

Rats whose mothers had been given the high-fat diet displayed similarly altered metabolism.

The inability to harness the hormone insulin to help keep blood sugar levels at the right level, known as insulin resistance, is widely regarded as an early warning sign of diabetes.

This disease, if undetected, can cause serious complications, such as long-term raised blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease.

Dr Pennington said: "The current results are useful as they shed more light on the link between diabetes in adult offspring and maternal dietary fat and alcohol consumption."

Brain food

British expert Professor David Phillips, from the Medical Research Council Environmental Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, said there was growing evidence that deficiencies in maternal diet had knock-on effects on the health of the child.

He said: "Obviously, there must be some fat in the diet. The foetus needs to develop a brain, and fatty acids may well be a part of this process.

"However, I am not surprised that an excess of fat may have a damaging effect."

The research was published in the Journal of Endocrinology.

See also:

21 Sep 00 | Health
Early pregnancy diet 'crucial'
16 Mar 01 | Health
Prolonged breast feeding warning
02 Jul 01 | Fertility conference 2001
Lifetime of health 'set in womb'
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