Malnourished mothers breed obese daughters

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Women whose mothers were malnourished during the early stages of pregnancy stand a greater chance of becoming overweight in middle age. A study of women who were pregnant during the Dutch famine of 1944-45 found that their daughters were significantly more obese at the age of 50.

Women whose mothers were malnourished during the early stages of pregnancy stand a greater chance of becoming overweight in middle age. A study of women who were pregnant during the Dutch famine of 1944-45 found that their daughters were significantly more obese at the age of 50.

Scientists who conducted the study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said the findings emphasised the importance of adequate nourishment during the early months of pregnancy.

A research team from the University of Amsterdam and the Medical Research Council's environmental epidemiology unit at Southampton University took body measurements of 741 men and women, now aged 50, whose mothers were pregnant during the closing stages of the Second World War, when a severe famine ravaged Nazi-occupied Holland.

The scientists concluded that the women's obesity developed as a result of hormonal changes that became fixed in the womb and are not the result of lifestyle factors, such as smoking or drinking.

"In general it shows that maternal nutrition in the early stages of pregnancy has an effect on obesity in middle age and it is independent of lifestyle," said Jan van der Meulen, an Amsterdam scientist seconded to the MRC unit.

"It shows that nutrition in pregnant women is very important in determining health problems for children in later life. It demonstrates the importance of your environment before you were born," he said.

The study found that the average body-mass index, a measure of obesity, is 7.4 per cent higher in women whose mothers were starved in the first few months of pregnancy, compared to ordinary women.

The scientists failed to find any significant differences in body-mass index in women whose mothers suffered from the famine after the fourth month of pregnancy, or in men at any stage of their mother's pregnancy.

"The most important thing to emerge from the Dutch study is that timing [of malnutrition] matters," said Dr Van der Meulen. The Dutch famine, caused by Nazi disruption to food supplies during the Allied invasion, is viewed by scientists as an "experiment in history" because it caused an intense period of starvation that started and ended abruptly in an otherwise well-fed population.

Results of the study have confirmed a theory developed by David Barker of Southampton University whose "foetal origins hypothesis'' proposes that many of the diseases of adult life originate from permanent changes that take place during foetal development. He suggested that because different tissues in the foetus have different critical periods of development, the timing of an effect on a pregnant woman is crucial.

Other findings of the Dutch study show that the children of women who were pregnant during the famine are more likely to develop late-onset diabetes, resulting in an imbalance of blood sugars.

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