Western-style diet during pregnancy increases health risks for mother and offspring

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Pregnant women who eat a high-calorie, high-sugar diet are more likely to experience poor metabolic health and pass on complications to their child, a study suggests.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge found that a diet which triggered obesity disrupted metabolic processes within the pregnant mother’s body. This led to the mothers having a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
“During a normal pregnancy, the mother’s body will change the way it handles nutrients so that some can be freed up for the foetus,” explained lead author Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri.
“The mother’s metabolism is shifted to an insulin resistant, glucose intolerant state, such that her own glucose use is limited in favour of foetal supply. We think that in cases where the mother has a high fat, high sugar diet, these metabolic changes are exacerbated or perturbed.”
The researchers found that when pregnant mice were fed a Western-style diet, high in calories and sugar, this affected their glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, compared to mice which ate a balanced diet.
The mice eating the high-sugar, high-calorie diet developed symptoms similar to gestational diabetes, which affects up to five per cent of women in the UK, and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes after birth.
The defects in the metabolism impaired the flow of nutrients to the foetus, and the study team believe that the offspring will consequently be more susceptible to poor metabolic health in later life.
“We still don’t know what the exact consequences for the foetus are, but the findings match existing research which already suggests that the individual will suffer from these metabolic problems during adulthood,” Sferruzzi-Perri said.
“This is because changes to the nutrient and oxygen supply, at a stage when individual organs are developing, can cause a permanent change in the structure and function of certain tissues.”
The findings appear online in The Journal of Physiology.