Have you ever heard the old saying “you are what you eat?” This is not just an expression anymore, as scientists have discovered that we are what we eat and possibly even what our parents or grandparents ate.
As surprising as it sounds, a pregnant woman’s diet and lifestyle, as well as the diet of an infant in his or her first years of life, may shape the child’s lifelong health or cause them to be more disease prone, not only during childhood, but also as an adult. Particularly, a diet high in saturated fats, red meats and carbs may cause damage to a child’s nervous system via epigenetic mechanisms.1, 2
Recent research has shown that the “intrauterine environment” affects many things concerning our bodies. The foods that we eat, our physical activity, the chemicals we are exposed to daily, and the environment we live in can potentially influence a baby’s epigenome or induce metabolic and developmental adaptations. These influences can permanently change and mark the baby’s physiology and metabolism, and thus increase the risk for all kinds of disorders, both mental and physical.1, 3
This wide range of potential issues could include anything from cancer, obesity and diabetes, depression, the development of asthma, or even Alzheimer’s disease. This process is also known as “fetal programming” or “fetal origins hypothesis.” 2,4
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of how the expression of DNA can be changed without changing the structure of the DNA itself. This science explains how our eating choices and other environmental factors can affect our genes, thus our health and that of our children and future generations.4
Besides a mom’s eating patterns, other factors like stress, GDM (gestational diabetes mellitus), and smoking or drinking alcohol during gestation can have deep effects on the unborn child. It can affect his or her susceptibility to chronic diseases as an adult. In other words, epigenetics may help explain how early nutrition and environmental exposure programs long-term health.
Childhood obesity and maternal nutritional status
Let’s face it! Obesity is one of the most serious public health problems of the modern world; its prevalence is increasing at alarming rates, affecting low and middle-income countries. What’s more concerning is that children are being affected too. According to WHO (World Health Organization), in 2016, the number of overweight children under the age of five was over 41 million, most of them living in Asian and African countries.5
Obesity is the result of a combination of multiple and complex factors that act all throughout a person’s life, however, recent evidence suggests that several early-life factors play a big role in the development of childhood obesity. Epigenetics has especially been linked to obesity in recent studies.
The first 2 years of a children’s life – first 1,000 days – are considered to be the most critically important in their development. An expanding body of scientific evidence shows that what happens during this period sets the basis for a child’s health throughout the course of their life, concluding that certain maternal influences on the baby’s metabolism occur during the gestational stage.3
To date, there have been hundreds of published studies supporting the association between maternal lifestyles and children’s future risk of obesity. The two most crucial factors are a high BMI (Body Mass Index) before pregnancy and excess maternal gestational weight gain. 4,6
Some of these studies have concluded that over-nutrition during pregnancy is associated not only with a higher BMI during the adolescence of the child, but also has been proved to be a risk factor for a range of problems at later life stages including high systolic blood pressure, higher glucose levels and, insulin-resistance.7
On the other hand, women who develop GDM or women who have been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes prior to conception, also seems to put the baby at significant risk for developing obesity, central adiposity, higher insulin secretion, and lower HDL cholesterol levels. And, if they can’t achieve metabolic control, it can actually compromise the intellectual performance and psychomotor development of the baby too. 1, 7, 8
So, does this means that undernourished women or women who have a poor gestational weight gain are free of risk? Not at all! Studies have actually proved that children born of an undernourished mom will have an increased risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, hypertension, higher incidence of coronary heart disease, a more atherogenic lipid profile, obesity and a weakened immune response. Moreover, they will be more susceptible to some metabolic disturbances, like hyperglycemia. 3, 4, 8
Nutrients and epigenetic modifications
Weight and calorie intake are not the only factors that can influence a baby’s epigenome or is or her risk for future diseases. Quality of the diet and nutrient consumption also matters and may have long-term implications. We can infer that gene–nutrient interactions that modulate CVD (cardiovascular risk disease) factors, including obesity may already exist. 4
The underlying mechanism behind gene-nutrient interaction is that some groups of nutrients act as a source of methyl groups or as co-enzymes for one-carbon metabolism that regulates methyl transfer. Folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, methionine, choline, betaine have been found to be methyl donors in these epigenetic modifications. 3, 4
Experimental studies have found that a diet with too little methyl-donors before or during pregnancy, or just after birth causes certain regions of the genome to be under-methylated for life, with the detrimental consequence for health.
As we saw above, very low energy and protein intake seem to increase the risk of becoming overweight in later life; but others may have the potential to prevent childhood obesity. Interestingly, the protective effect is due to the combination of several of these nutrients, meaning that they act synergistically. Their protective effect is not seen, however, if taken alone. 4
Epigenetics is a vast science that gives us a new perspective on the origins and early development of disease. It also opens our eyes to create novel approaches to treat chronic disorders and takes a step forward on the traditional management of them.
If many of these illnesses have their origins within the maternal environment we, therefore, should aim to provide women the necessary resources for a successful and healthy pregnancy. Regarding nutrition, we should encourage women to follow a well-balanced diet, which includes adequate amounts of energy, protein, and micronutrients. It is important to discuss a proper diet with your doctor and consult with a professional if you are interested in learning what may be consumed to have a potentially positive epigenetic modification on the offspring. Ensuring these healthier environments will lead us to healthier future generations.