A whopping 68 percent of people are overweight and 31 percent are struggling with obesity. What’s more, the diet industry itself yields 33 billion dollars annually and 75 percent of women in their childbearing years are currently on a diet or following a restricted eating regime. If you need to lose weight, it may make logical since to follow a diet, however new research suggest that the very act of dieting, especially around the time of conception, may put your future offspring at an increased risk for obesity and diabetes.
Recently, Anna White, Ph.D., led a study conducted on twin sheep at the University of Manchester in Manchester, UK; the results of which were published in FASEB Journal. White and her colleagues set-out to determine whether altering a mother’s nutrition during the time of conception and early pregnancy, would affect the future health of her child to be. The scientists examined the brain tissue of the fetal sheep and found that the sheep, whose mothers consumed less food around the time of conception and early pregnancy, had an altered DNA structure in the part of the brain that controls both food intake and glucose levels. Consequently, these lambs had an increased chance of developing obesity and diabetes in adulthood.
Interestingly, the restricted eating did not result in inherited changes to the gene or actual DNA sequence being passed on to the fetal sheep. Instead, it resulted in epigenetic changes, which are non-genetic changes that affect a cell or organ without directly affecting the sequence of the DNA. More specifically, the DNA structure itself was altered and so too where its histones, which are associated proteins that affect the way that genes behave later in life. “Our findings provide a reason why twins are more likely to get diabetes but we have also shown that mothers who don’t have enough food around the time of conception may have a child who grows up with an increased risk of obesity,” said White.
Although the study was conducted on sheep and not humans, the researchers believe that their discoveries are relevant to humans too because they reveal a non-genetic way in which the DNA of one’s offspring can be transformed. “Our study is important because it shows that factors in the brain can be altered by non-hereditary mechanisms and this can result in changes in the body, which could make people obese,” said White. “This study (also) shows that expecting mothers have to walk a really fine line when it comes to diet and nutrition,” adds Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB Journal, Gerald Weissmann, M.D. White and her colleagues are optimistic that their findings have created an important foundation for future obesity and diabetes prevention regimes, which will likely include dietary counseling to women who are planning to get pregnant.
Further research needs to be done to determine the exact effects of a woman’s preconception and early pregnancy diet on her fetus. Nevertheless, the results of this study may help to ease the guilt of the occasional overindulgence in women who are trying to conceive or who are with child. If the risk of obesity goes down, the strain on the healthcare system goes down as well.