In the United States, the fight against childhood obesity has focused mainly on kids' diet and exercise levels. But a new international study is delving deeper, and has found that moms who minimize their carbohydrate intake during the early part of their pregnancies are more likely to have kids who become obese.
Researcher think that the developing baby may adjust its DNA in order to adapt to the environment into which it will be born. A lack of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) early on in its development may signal a need to be able to store energy in the form of fat before adolescence.
"We have shown for the first time that susceptibility to obesity cannot simply be attributed to the combination of our genes and our lifestyle, but can be triggered by influences on a baby's development in the womb, including what the mother ate," the study's leader, University of Southampton professor Keith Godfrey, said in a statement. "A mother's nutrition while pregnant can cause important epigenetic changes that contribute to her offspring's risk of obesity during childhood."
It doesn't seem to matter how fat or thin the mom-to-be is or how much the baby weighs at birth; if the mom's early pregnancy diet is too low-carb, the likelihood that her baby will be born with certain "epigenetic changes" gets higher. And those particular changes are linked to childhood obesity at ages 6 and 9.
Epigenetic changes can alter the way DNA functions without changing the actual DNA sequence itself (the sequence, of course, is inherited from both parents when the baby is conceived). In the study, researchers took samples from the umbilical cords of nearly 300 babies and looked for certain epigenetic changes, or markers. They found changes involving the RXRA gene, which has to do with our receptors for vitamin A and the way cells process fat.
"What is surprising is that it explains a quarter of the difference in the fatness of children six to nine years later," Godfrey, a professor at the University of Southampton, told the BBC. "It is both a fascinating and potentially important piece of research. All women who become pregnant get advice about diet, but it is not always high up the agenda of health professionals."
The research could change the way people deal with obesity, and simply keeping an eye on Body Mass Index, or BMI, might not be enough. According to research team member Sir Peter Gluckman, Fellow of Royal Society, of the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland and the Singapore Institute of Clinical Sciences: "This study provides the most compelling evidence yet that just focusing on interventions in adult life will not reverse the epidemic of chronic diseases, not only in developed societies but in low socio-economic populations, too."
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- Is BMI accurate to assess one's fitness?