Ease off the fats during pregnancy

Obesity remains one of the primary headlines every day. But what you probably don’t know is the fastest growing segment of the obesity epidemic is children less than 4 years old. Approximately 20 percent are obese (1). Even more disturbing is the growth of obesity in children under the age of six months (2). You can’t blame school lunch programs for this youngest group, since they are too young to go to school, and you can’t blame lack of exercise since they can’t walk yet.

Frankly, no child wants to be obese. In fact, their quality of life is similar to that of a child undergoing chemotherapy (3). Yet we are constantly reminded that they are obese because they lack personal responsibility, and they only have to “eat less and exercise more”. The fact that such interventions don’t seem to work is simply a minor detail (4-6).

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the culprit may be fetal programming in the womb that is causing epigenetic changes in the fetus before birth. This has already been demonstrated in pregnant rats that were fed a high-fat diet from the first day of pregnancy (7). These rats were genetically bred to be obesity resistant so that extra fat in their diet didn’t increase the body weight of the mothers during pregnancy. However, the offspring of those mothers fed the high-fat diet had blood sugar levels that were nearly twice as high as compared to offspring coming from the pregnant rats being fed a normal-fat diet. This is an indication that they were born with insulin resistance.

When researchers looked for epigenetic markers that might distinguish the two groups of offspring, sure enough they found chemical markers in the genes that regulate glucose metabolism. Since these epigenetic markers on the genes are not easily removed, the offspring with them would face a lifetime of dietary challenge to counteract their new genetic pre-disposition to obesity and diabetes.

So let’s come back to the growing childhood obesity problem in the very young. It may be due to fetal programming caused by high levels of both saturated and omega-6 fatty acids in the prenatal diet. Both types of fatty acids will cause increased cellular inflammation that can affect gene expression. If that occurs in the fetus, then that may be enough to genetically alter their future for a lifetime, including a far greater risk of obesity and diabetes.


  1. Anderson SE and Whitaker RC. “Prevalence of Obesity Among US Preschool Children in Different Racial and Ethnic Groups.” Arch Pediatric Adolescent Med 163: 344-348 (2009)
  2. Kim J, Peterson KE, Scanlon KS, Fitzmaurice GM, Must A, Oaken E, Rifas-Shiman SL, Rich-Edwards JW, and Gillman MW. “Trends in overweight from 1980 through 2001 among preschool-aged children enrolled in a health maintenance organization.” Obesity 14: 1107-1112 (2006)
  3. Schwimmer JB, Burwinkle TM, and Varni JW. “Health-related quality of life of severely obese children and adolescents.” JAMA 289: 1813-1819 (2003)
  4. McGovern L, Johnson JN, Paulo R, Hettinger A, Singhal V, Kamath C, Erwin PJ, and Montori VM. “Clinical review: treatment of pediatric obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 93: 4600-4605 (2008)
  5. Kamath CC, Vickers KS, Ehrlich A, McGovern L, Johnson J, Singhal V, Paulo R, Hettinger A, Erwin PJ, and Montori VM. “Clinical review: behavioral interventions to prevent childhood obesity: a systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized trials.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 93: 4606-4615 (2008)
  6. Shaw K, Gennat H, O’Rourke P, and Del Mar C. “Exercise for overweight or obesity.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006: CD003817 (2006)
  7. Strakovsky RS, Zhang X, Zhou D, and Pan YX. “Gestational high-fat diet programs hepatic phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase gene expression and histone modification in neonatal offspring rats.” J Physiol 589: 2707-2717 (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Diet and tagged , , , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

9 thoughts on “Ease off the fats during pregnancy

  1. They would be better to ease off the sugar, ground grains, manufactured oils, and manufactured eatable products. The nutrition is low, while the calories are high. Not that rat chow is all high trans fats and hydrogenated oils in the fat portion. When you feed rats on real food, you may find different results.

  2. There is no data about the percentage of increase in children under six months who are obese. That would be interesting to know. I have been intrigued about the Eskimo population as there rates of obesity are similar to the lower 48 states. The traditional diet is high fat as it includes large amounts of fatty fish so pregnant women would be consuming a high fat diet from conception on. What are there rates of infant obesity? How does their diet affect their fetal programming? What might their epigentic markers reveal? Because their diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and they have a long history of low rates of heart disease and diabetes it seems that the type of fat consumed is more important than the percent of fat.

    Research form the Cancer Prevention Program of Public Health Sciences found that obese Yup’ik Eskimos with high blood levels of omega-3 fats had trigylceride and CRP concentrations no different than normal weight persons. The researchers stated that it appeared that high intakes of omega-3-rich seafood protected Yup’ik Eskimos from some of the harmful effects of obesity.

    Since the traditional Eskimo diet is primarily fat and protein with little in the way of fruits and vegetables I wonder about the call for polyphenol supplements. At some point I would appreciate a blog on this with references. The Eskimo diet and their lack of plant foods is a bit of a conundrum. Anyone know if their diet includes sea vegetables?

  3. I often wonder whether a study has ever been done to compare the obesity rates in children who drink rbgh milk and those who drink non-rgbh milk. I remember how controversial the decision was to treat cows with rbgh, and how all the science at the time indicated that there was no difference in the milk. Now that time has passed, and we see how obesity rates have risen especially in children, has anyone studied the effect of rbgh again? It seems a no-brainer to me that if the cow was treated with growth hormone, drinking the cow’s milk MUST have an effect on the growth of the person drinking it, especially a small person. I would love to see what a longitudinal study comparing these variables would show. My children, both of whom drink non-rgbh milk and have an otherwise “standard” diet, are both underweight and developing more slowly compared to their peers who drink “regular” milk.

  4. I’m a 63-year-old Mexican woman. I have been diagnosed with diabetes. My doctor informs me that I can not change my situation and need to take meds. I am presently taking metformin (500 mg. twice a day) & glipizide (5mg.) with these meds. my glucose registers @ 70s – 80s~ pre-meds 100-150. I hate taking these meds. My doctor says my genetics & ethnicity predisposes me to be diabetic as well as being 45 lbs overweight & my sedentary library computer job. Is diabetes reversible or not? In viewing the Nutra System ads it is due to changes in foods – quantity and food combinations with daily exercise. I am a grandmother of a little 5-year-old and soon to be graced with another grandbaby. Have I given them a genetic diabetes imprint?

    • Diabetes is a chronic disease that can be managed very successfully for a lifetime given the appropriate diet. The diet recommended by the Joslin Diabetes Research Center at Harvard Medical is essentially the Zone diet. It is quite likely that your grandchildren carry the same genetic predisposition toward diabetes. Therefore the diet that would be most appropriate in your case to manage the diabetes would also be the best diet for them to prevent its manifestation in the first place.

  5. The answer to rising obesity rates in infants in Breast Feeding!!!!! Total breastfeeding without supplementation until the age of six or seven months, will keep babies from being “obese”. My sons were chubby little totally breastfed babies, and breastfed through toddlerhood. They had a good homecooked diet with occasional sweets (mostly at birthday parties) and they are now healthy young adults.
    Prolonged breast feeding keeps kids healthier, and has distinct advantage for mom too. Please, Dr. Sears, promote breastfeeding of infants!!

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