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May 01, 2014 05:20 PM EDT

Mother's Diet During Pregnancy Could Impact Child And Future Generations

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What women eat during their pregnancy could impact the health of not only the offspring but also future generations, according to a recent study.

Researchers found that environmental factors in the womb can predispose not only the mother's own offspring but also future generations to metabolic disorders like liver disease.

"Our data suggest that a few environmentally induced epigenetic modifications may be passed and stably maintained in the next generation," Josep Jiménez-Chillarón, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

For the study, researchers looked at the patterns of gene expression in mice.

They found that for pregnant mice that are malnourished -- experiencing a 50 percent caloric restriction during the last week of pregnancy -- that their offspring are at first growth restricted and have low birth weight but then go on to become obese and diabetic as they age. Strikingly, in a domino effect, the offspring of the growth-restricted males also inherit the predisposition to metabolic abnormalities.

"This may contribute, in part, to the transmission of diabetes risk from parents to offspring," Jiménez-Chillarón said.

Researchers found that in a fetus' reproductive cells, in utero malnutrition causes epigenetic changes that are subsequently transmitted to cells of the next generation. If these findings hold true for humans, what a woman eats while pregnant may have some effects on health and disease in her future grandchildren.

Researchers said their findings open up the possibility that predisposition for some complex diseases might be inherited independently from one's genetic sequence.

However, Jiménez-Chillarón said that it is important not to fall into the temptation of "blaming" one's parents (or even grandparents) for disease.

"Our view is that we inherit some predisposition, but it is our own lifestyle that will determine whether inherited risk will truly translate into disease," he said. "Hence, a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent any potentially inherited or newly acquired obesity or diabetes predisposition."

The findings were recently published in the Cell Press journal Cell Metabolism.

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