Kiwi scientists have helped prove a link between a mother's diet during pregnancy and the risk of childhood obesity.
The study, led by Southampton University and including New Zealand researchers, shows for the first time that a mother's diet during pregnancy can alter the function of her child's DNA and can lead to children having a tendency to "lay down" more fat.
The study shows this has nothing to do with the mother's weight or the child's weight at birth.
Auckland University professor Sir Peter Gluckman, who led the New Zealand arm of the study, said there had been a long-suspected link between a poor start to life and the later development of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, but until now there had not been human data to back up the idea.
He said the study confirmed the importance of maternal nutrition to children's development.
"It confirms our suspicions that maternal nutrition does indeed influence the offspring's risk of later obesity and disease ... there is the potential to halt progression towards disease through nutritional and or pharmacological interventions during early life."
The study measured the epigenetic state – the degree of chemical modification – of DNA in umbilical cord tissue of nearly 300 children and showed that this strongly predicted the degree of obesity at six or nine years of age.
The amount of change in DNA tissue at birth was associated with features of the mother's diet in the first third of a pregnancy.
Predictions based on these results were much stronger than explanations of obesity based on hereditary factors and lifestyle.
Sir Peter said the study proved the importance of preventive infant health and could help fight the problem of obesity and diabetes in new ways and earlier in life.
"This study provides the most compelling argument yet for giving greater weight to improving maternal and infant health as a means of reducing the burden of chronic disease. It is manifestly insufficient to focus on interventions in the adult alone."
- The Dominion Post
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