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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 00:44 GMT
Hungry mothers 'put children at risk'
Babies
Babies are affected by their mother's diet while in the womb
Children born to mothers who go hungry during early pregnancy run a greater risk of heart disease as adults, say researchers.

The evidence comes from the Dutch famine of 1944-45, which occurred when the Allied forces failed to take hold of the bridge spanning the Rhine at Arnhem.

At the height of the famine, adults in Amsterdam were on rations as low as 400 kilocalories a day.

The researchers examined over 700 50-year-olds born between November 1943 and February 1947 in a university hospital in Amsterdam. They also examined the birth records.

Twenty-four - just over 3% - had coronary heart disease.

At birth they had tended to weigh below average, to have had smaller head size, and to have had lighter mothers than those people without heart disease.

As adults they also had higher blood pressure, weighed more, and a higher adverse cholesterol profile.

But people whose mothers starved during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy were three times as likely to have heart disease as those who had not been conceived during the famine.

This effect was not seen for those whose mothers were starved during mid- or late pregnancy.

The authors conclude that not only does an "adverse foetal environment contribute to several aspects of cardiovascular risk in adult life, but that the effects depend on its timing during gestation."

Researcher Dr Tessa Roseboom told BBC News Online: "Our findings provide the first evidence that undernutrition during gestation increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

"The results give important new insights into risk factors for coronary heart disease.

"Not only adult lifestyle and genetic make-up, but also the foetus' nourishment in utero determines its later susceptibility to coronary heart disease."

Dr Roseboom advised women not to try to lose weight during pregnancy.

No need to worry

Sarah Stanner, a nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation, said women in the UK who gave birth to low weight babies should not be unduly concerned as they were likely to have had considerably better diets than women in wartime Arnhem.

She said babies were particularly at risk if they were subjected to famine conditions during the first months of pregnancy, and then rapidly put on weight either before birth or in the first few years of life.

She told BBC News Online: "It could be that the body adapts to the fact that it is being malnourished and as a result when faced with plenty it cannot cope.

"Or it could be that the organs are not formed adequately to deal with over-consumption later on."

Ms Stanner said it was difficult to encourage women to eat a good diet from the beginning of pregnancy as they were often well into the first trimester before they realised they were pregnant.

The only solution was for everybody to try to eat a healthy, balanced diet all the time.

The research is published in the journal Heart.

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