Researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York state that eating a high-fat diet while pregnant may cause the child to overeat or be overweight early in life.
This study, published in the Nov. 12 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience studied the effect of high-fat prenatal diets on the offspring of rats.
“We’ve shown that short-term exposure to a high-fat diet in utero produces permanent neurons in the fetal brain that later increase the appetite for fat,” says senior author Sarah F. Leibowitz, who directs the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurobiology at Rockefeller. “This work provides the first evidence for a fetal program that links high levels of fats circulating in the mother’s blood during pregnancy to the overeating and increased weight gain of offspring after weaning.”
During testing, pregnant rats were given a high-fat diet where 50% of the calories consumed came from lard and vegetable oil. For the control group, other pregnant rats were placed on a healthy balanced diet, where fat made up 20% of the calories.
The offspring of the high-fat diet rats were bigger and showed a greater interest for high-fat foods, compared to the offspring on the healthy balanced diet. The high-fat diet offspring also had more brain cells in an appetite-related brain region than the control group.
“We believe the high levels of triglycerides that the fetuses are exposed to during pregnancy cause the growth of the neurons earlier and much more than is normal,” says Leibowitz.
While they didn’t test this study on humans, the researchers believe that similar mechanisms may be present in humans.
“We’re programming our children to be fat,” she says. “I think it’s very clear that there’s vulnerability in the developing brain, and we’ve identified the site of this action where new neurons are being born. We now need to understand how the lipids affect these precursor cells that form these fat-sensitive neurons that live with us throughout life.”