The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Pregnant Mother's Diet May Rewire Baby's Brain for Obesity

A healthy diet during the third trimester may improve a baby's brain structure.

Researchers at Yale University have found that children of obese mothers who eat a high-fat diet may be more likely to have metabolic disorders and be at a higher risk of becoming obese and developing diabetes. The study titled "Neonatal Insulin Action Impairs Hypothalamic Neurocircuit Formation in Response to Maternal High Fat Feeding" was published in the January 2014 journal Cell.

Various studies continue to find that the dietary choices both parents make before, during, and after pregnancy may directly impact a child’s predisposition to become obese and/or develop diabetes. The obesity epidemic threatens the well-being of individuals, or society, and our economy. How can we break this cycle?

In response to the obesity epidemic, policy makers and organizations like the Alliance for a Healthier Generation are making strides to create healthier food and more physically active environments at school and afterschool and to educate parents and children alike on making healthier lifestyle choices.

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According to a study by the American Diabetes Association, 1 in 5 US health care dollars is directed to people diagnosed with diabetes. The total costs of diagnosed diabetes have risen to $245 billion in 2012 from $174 billion in 2007.

The exponential rise in obesity and diabetes has perplexed researchers to some degree. New research shows that both parents pass on a hereditary predisposition for obesity and diabetes. Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog titled “Physically Fit Fathers May Have Healthier Children” based on a new study that showed that obese fathers who consumed a high fat diet at the time of conception passed on a genetic predisposition to their children to develop obesity and/or diabetes.

A Baby's Hypothalamus Can Be Rewired During Pregnancy

Obese mothers are more likely to have children with metabolic disorders such as diabetes compared with thin mothers, but the underlying molecular and cellular reasons for this effect have been unclear.

The study published by Cell Press on January 23, 2013 in the journal Cell reveals that the offspring of female mice on a high-fat diet are predisposed to obesity and diabetes because of abnormal neuronal circuits in the hypothalamus. Among a variety of functions, the hypothalamus is responsible for the regulation of metabolism.

In particular the findings suggest that mothers who consume a large amount of fat during the third trimester may be putting their children at risk for lifelong obesity and related metabolic disorders.

"Our study suggests that expecting mothers can have major impact on the long-term metabolic health of their children by properly controlling nutrition during this critical developmental period of the offspring," says study author Tamas Horvath of the Yale University School of Medicine.

More than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese and thus are at risk for long-term health problems such as type 2 diabetes. Studies in humans have shown that mothers who are obese or have diabetes put their children at risk for metabolic problems.

Until now, researchers have not previously identified the exact brain circuits mediating this effect, known as metabolic programming. Moreover, past studies failed to pinpoint the most critical stage of pregnancy during which maternal nutrition has the greatest impact on offspring health.

The researchers also found that female mice fed a high-fat diet during lactation had offspring with abnormal neuronal connections in the hypothalamus, as well as altered insulin signaling in this brain circuit. As a result, the offspring remained overweight and had abnormalities in glucose metabolism throughout their adult life.

Conclusion: Pregnant Women Should Try to Eat Healthy Foods, Especially in the Third Trimester. 

Obviously, there are developmental differences between humans and mice. Neural circuits in the hypothalamus continue to develop after birth in mice, but are fully developed before birth in humans. Therefore, the researchers at Yale conclude that the third trimester of pregnancy in humans is the most critical time window for mothers’ nutrition to have long-lasting effects on babies’ health.

"Given that gestational diabetes frequently manifests during the third trimester, our results point toward the necessity of more intensified screening of mothers for altered glucose metabolism, as well as tightly controlled antidiabetic therapy if any alterations are detected during this critical period," Brüning concluded.

Unfortunately, children being born to two parents who are obese face a double whammy. They may be both genetically predisposed to become obese and they are also entering a 21st century society filled with abundant junk food and increased screen time. Luckily, these trends can be reversed by making healthier lifestyle choices for you and your children before, during, and after pregnancy.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Please follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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