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Obese From the Womb? The Shocking New Trend in America’s Weight Epidemic

A mother's weight and diet can have a major impact on obesity risks.
 
 
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Can obesity start in the womb? According to recent work by scientists in Germany, the answer may be yes. Researchers at the Charite Hospital in Berlin found that babies with a high weight (over 8 pounds) had double the chances of suffering obesity as their normal-weight counterparts.

This insight is shifting previous beliefs that emphasized genetic causes such as overweight parents or other family members. Specifically, the new view claims that child obesity is primarily the result of the mother’s weight and food preferences during pregnancy. Dietician Bonnie Modungo, a specialist in weight management, notes an increasing trend in which “ pregnant women are heavier, have higher blood glucose levels, and grow bigger babies.” Modugno adds that the issue is the amount of fat stores the baby has in her organs and tissue.

What's happening in the womb?

Over the past 10 years, scientists in New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have studied obesity and epigenetics to attempt to understand the connection between prenatal nutrition and obesity. They have found that what a mother eats during pregnancy directly correlates to the infant’s food preferences throughout the course of his or her life. Simon Langley-Evans of the University of Nottingham studied the fetal hypothalamus, which is developed during the first trimester of pregnancy. In his study, pregnant rats were fed either a controlled diet of rat chow or a combination of rat chow and junk foods (e.g., doughnuts, cakes, pies, potato chips, fried foods). The offspring of the rats fed unhealthy foods ate excessively more junk foods, while both groups ate the same amount of rat chow. He then did research to see if these same results applied to humans. They did.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person’s appetite appears to be set before and directly after birth. When the mother ingests food, the fetus detects the flavors through a sense of smell in the amniotic fluid in which it floats.

Although these senses are minimal, the fetus forms preferences in the hypothalamus. This phenomenon creates a set point of satiety, meaning that as a child and adult the offspring will not feel satisfied until these preferences are met. When pregnant women eat a diet high in fat and sugar and low in protein, the theory goes, infants are born at higher birth weights and are pre-wired to have higher energy needs, to hoard calories and to crave high fat and high sugar foods. What follows is obesity in childhood and adulthood.

It has also been shown that high levels of energy consumption during pregnancy can alter the genetic code in children, causing them to have increased energy needs into adulthood. This makes it difficult for children to control weight gain and ultimately leads to obesity. These studies also cover the case of breast milk: Infants can taste the foods consumed by the mother through the breast milk, once again reinforcing a preference to what their mother eats and drinks.

Mothers confused, low-income babies at risk

For a pregnant woman, knowing what to eat and drink during pregnancy is a challenge. There a thousand different views on what is acceptable, and a simple Google search can throw you in 20 different directions. For example, pregnant mothers are often warned about alcohol consumption, and even refused a glass of wine in restaurants, and yet a report in Scientific American shows that a glass of wine a day does no harm. Then there's the question of fish. How much mercury is safe? And how many grams of fat per day is optimal? To strive for perfection with prenatal nutrition is near enough impossible, but the issue behind obesity in the womb is often traced back to the fact that many mothers in America do not have adequate healthcare or not enough access to healthy foods.