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Overweight Pregnant Mothers and Baby Obesity

Overweight pregnant mothers hardwiring obesity in babies

Chowing down on fried foods and fizzy drinks while pregnant or breastfeeding could be hardwiring your baby’s brain for a lifetime of weight problems, a visiting professor to the University of Otago says.

“This is possibly the most widely spread health issue facing pregnancy right now and it could have a long term impact on world health. We are talking about permanent reprogramming of how the body regulates weight and fat stores,” Oregon National Primate Research Centre researcher Dr Kevin Grove says.

Dr Grove is visiting the University of Otago as a Community Trust of Otago Visiting Professor to initiate collaborative research with Department of Physiology Associate Professor Allan Herbison.

Dr Herbison is a world-renowned reproductive neuroendocrinologist, and Dr Grove hopes to set up joint research investigating how the metabolic system affects female reproduction, or vise versa, in the different stages of life.

Dr Grove’s main area of study considers how what pregnant and breastfeeding mothers eat hardwires the bodyweight their baby’s body wants to maintain for the rest of its life.

“Overweight or obese and diabetic women are more likely to give birth to babies with a “thrifty” phenotype – babies with a bodyweight set higher than normal and brains permanently hardwired to consume to meet that perceived demand. They have an increased appetite and decreased metabolism to burn fewer calories and a predisposition to put any spare energy into fat stores.

“The “thrifty” phenotype is common in many racial groups that traditionally ate low-protein low fat diets, did lots of physical labour, and had to weather periods when food was not plentiful,” Dr Grove says.

However, while that was a beneficial adaptation for those conditions it is now a curse in a developed world with an abundance of food, and a trend towards high-fat diets.

“Because their internal bodyweight regulator has been set high, babies of overweight and obese mothers are predisposed to being obese themselves and developing diabetes and other related health problems such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

“This is not about will power. The chemistry of the brain is designed to defend its body fat stores. There are many different systems designed to ensure the body maintains its set body weight, and when it comes to defending that body weight the brain doesn't care if the arteries are clogged,” Dr Grove says.

“This is a huge problem in America and it’s growing. Over half of all US women are overweight or obese. Every child those women have means a new kid being born with slightly higher bodyweight set point, greater susceptibility to diabetes and being obese. And when those female children grow up and get pregnant they have the potential to have children with even higher bodyweight set point again. So it’s a vicious cycle,” he says.

In the United States 10 to 15% of children under the age of 19 years, including infants, are obese and twice that number are overweight. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Health the numbers are similar here. And the numbers are getting higher. There has been a 9% increase body mass index in 11-12 year olds over the last 10 years.

Dr Grove is still defining the consequences of maternal diet on offspring, but the key to the solution is eating a healthy diet and being active.

“It’s not easy getting people to change their behaviour, but data now shows that women are more likely to give up smoking and drinking during their pregnancy once they have been educated in the risks to their baby.

“Maybe if women are educated that being overweight and having a poor diet during pregnancy is setting up their babies to a lifetime of weight problems they will change their habits. The fact is, something needs to be done soon,” Dr Grove says.

Dr Grove is giving a public lecture entitled “Does diet during and after pregnancy make a difference to infant development” in the Barnett Lecture Theatre, First Floor, Dunedin Public Hospital at 1pm on Wednesday April 13.

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