New research shows a poor diet during pregnancy can have a negative effect on the baby’s long-term health.
According to scientists at the University of Cambridge, children born to mothers who had an unhealthy diet during pregnancy are more prone to type 2 diabetes later in life.
The study establishes a link between the regulation of Hnf4a, a gene linked to type 2 diabetes, and a mother’s diet during pregnancy.
Prior research has shown that Hnf4a has a role in the development of the pancreas and the production of insulin, and scientists thought that a mother’s diet during pregnancy has a far-reaching influence on the gene, affecting its expression later in a child’s life.
The idea that environmental factors, such as diet, affect genes throughout life is a proven fact, and the reason behind these effects is epigenetics: modifications to DNA that control how much of a gene is produced.
To test their theory, researchers altered the protein content of rats’ diets during pregnancy to cause their offspring to develop type 2 diabetes in old age.
When studying cells from the pancreas of the offspring of both well-nourished and malnourished mothers, researchers found the Hnf4a gene was expressed far less in the offspring prone to type 2 diabetes.
Though the amount of Hnf4a decreased with age in both groups of rats, when scientists studied the rats’ DNA, they found the aging-related decrease in Hnf4a to be far more pronounced in rats whose mothers had poor diets during pregnancy.
The scientists then studied DNA from the pancreas cells in humans and proved the expression of Hnf4a in humans is controlled the same way as in rats. Therefore, in humans as well as rats, a decreased amount of Hnf4a leads to a decrease in pancreatic function, impacting its ability to produce insulin.
Basically, a decrease in Hnf4a means an increase in the risk of diabetes.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, says: ‘We already know that a healthy pregnancy is important in shaping a child’s health… The reasons why are not well understood, but this study in rats adds to the evidence that a mother’s diet may sometimes alter the control of certain genes in her unborn child. This research doesn’t change our advice that pregnant women should try to eat a healthy, balanced diet.’