Preventing obesity through prenatal nutrition

It is obvious that pediatric obesity is a growing problem. However, compared to adult obesity, it is a relatively new problem. In a new article to be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, it is pointed out that while childhood obesity has increased some 300 percent since 1960, most of that increase only began in the mid 1990s (1). This is well after the beginning of the climb of adult obesity, which started in the 1980s. Why the lag time? I believe it may have been caused by the amplification of any genetic predisposition to obesity by prenatal programming in the womb. That means you had to have obese mothers whose own hormonal changes and diet were altering the fetal programming of their children, thus amplifying their likelihood for obesity after birth.

This possibility makes sense based on results from another recent article that demonstrates that the lower the omega-3 fatty acid status in the mother, the more likely the child would be obese by the age of 3 (2). In this particular study, researchers found that by age 3 about 10 percent of the children were already obese. What they also analyzed was even though virtually all the women were consuming very low levels of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, the higher the levels of the omega-3 fatty acids in mother’s diet, or her blood, and especially in the blood from the umbilical cord to the fetus, the lower the levels of obesity in the child three years later after birth.

Of course, lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids usually indicate higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, giving rise to an unbalanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. This is why the highest correlation with increased childhood obesity was found with an increasing ratio of arachidonic acid to EPA and DHA in the blood of the mother and also in the umbilical cord of the fetus. This makes perfect sense since it is known from animal studies that the higher the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the diet of the mother, the greater the obesity in the offspring (3-5).

So if you want to begin to decrease childhood obesity, it is probably best to start in the womb of the mother with appropriate prenatal nutrition using appropriate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. This would prevent the fetal programming of the unborn child that would lead to rapid accumulation of excess body fat after birth. I think this makes a lot more sense than telling obese children to “eat less and exercise more” after their genetic expression has been altered in the womb. And if this makes sense, then doesn’t it also strongly suggest that feeding children more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acids after birth will silence the activation of ancient genes that make them fat and keep them fat (6).

References

  1. Lee H, Lee D, Guo G, and Harris KM. “Trends in body mass index in adolescence and young adulthood in the United States: 1959-2002.” J Adolescent Heath DOI:10.1016/jadolheath2011.04.019 (2011)
  2. Donahue SMA, Rifas-Shiman SL, Gold DR, Jouni ZE, Gilman MW, and Oken E. “Prenatal fatty acid status and child adiposity at age 3.” Am J Clin Nutr 93: 780-788 (2011)
  3. Korotkova M, Gabrielsson BG, Holmang, A, Larrson BM, Hanson LA, and Strandvik B. “Gender-related long-term effects in adult rats by perinatal dietary ratio of n-6/n-3 fatty acids.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 288: R575-579 (2005)
  4. Ailhaud G, Guesnet P, and Cannane SC. “An emerging risk factor for obesity: does disequilibrium of polyunsaturated fatty acid metabolism contribute to excessive adipose tissue development?” Br J Nutr 100: 461-470 (2008)
  5. Massiera L, Barbry P, Guesnet P, Joly A, Luquet S, Moreihon-Brest C, Moshen-Kanson T, Amri E-Z, and Ailhaud G. “A western-like fat diet is sufficient to induce a gradual enhancement in fat mass over generations.” J Lipid Res 51: 2352-2361 (2010)
  6. Massiera Saint-Marc P, Seydoux J, Murata T, Kobayshi T, Narumiya S, Guesnet P, Amri E-Z, Negrel R, and Alhaud G. “Arachidonic acid and prostacyclin signaling promote adipose tissue development: a human health concern?’ J Lipid Res 44: 271-279 (2003)

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.

64 thoughts on “Preventing obesity through prenatal nutrition

  1. Hi, Dr. Sears,
    A couple of questions: I’d heard that Zone Labs was going to get the blood SIP test. Any progress? What do you take for supplements on a daily basis? Is a baby aspirin part of your regime?
    Thanks,
    Joe

  2. What does that say for us who were the fetus in the wombs of the obese mother?

    I’m a 3rd generation female from obese mothers who also thought that babies need to look chubby or they’re not healthy. I look like a stuffed sausage in all my baby pictures and the fat patterns established then are the exact same ones I have today. It’s been a serious struggle all my life. Even on the zone I lowered my body fat to 25% but I couldn’t budge it further.

    So that there has been genetic programming in the womb does that mean for us adult chubby babies who’ve been trying to get to a normal weight?

    Can we expect that we will always be a little heavier than people who didn’t experience this genetic programming?

    Will it always be hard for us to lose fat?

    Should we focus more on just eating healthy and exercising and accept that we will never be 20% bodyfat?

    • Lisa
      It isn’t easy for anyone to lose weight so you’re not alone trying to solve your weight loss difficulty. For your suppertime meal try eating only protein and salad with an olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice dressing ( 0 gm carbs)….no starches and no fruits. By eliminating energy-rich foods at your last meal of the day you will be creating an energy deficit for the time you are sleeping which will force your body to release stored energy.

      Lois

    • Unfortunately, it will be more difficult to lose excess weight as a result of this fetal programming. However, you can still reduce cellular inflammation dramatically by dietary intervention using an anti-inflammatory diet and high-dose fish oil. This ensures the remaining fat cells represent a form of “good fat” that will continually extract excess arachidonic acid from the blood and store in the adipose tissue. The reduction of cellular inflammation is the true indicator of future wellness.

  3. Oh by the way. When I was pregnant…I didn’t gain more than was necessary for the baby, I ate all the right foods, didn’t smoke or anything. My boys are now 16 and 18. They look like greek gods and absolutely do not have a weight problem.

    Also what does a smoking mother do to the fetus?…that was another thing that many babies of the 60′s endured, including me and my husband.

  4. I am confused. What is an “obese mother?” A woman who is overweight before becoming pregnant? A thin woman who gains a lot of weight during pregnancy? And does breastfeeding the baby have any effect on childhood obesity?

    • It is not so much of the mother being obese, but the effect on the fetus. If the newborn child is significantly underweight or overweight, the likelihood of future obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is significantly increased.

  5. I believe that in a perfect world there would be no poverty. People would not have to live on rice, or rice and beans, or wheat products, or corn products. Everyone would would have nutritious food to eat every day. People would only work 40 hours per week or less and have a 5 to 10 minute commute to work and at least an hour for a lunch break. Pregnant women would be cared for and not abused. We do not live in Utopia. Those of us who can afford to buy any food we desire and even have the luxury of buying supplements to further insure our good health are indeed fortunate. We cannot wipe out the inequities of life in the real world.

    To prevent childhood obesity, one must eliminate poverty and ignorance first. Are we willing to feed obese children 3 meals and snacks each day? Do we take these children away from their parents because these children eat cereal and Pop Tarts for breakfast, and peanut butter and crackers for lunch, and potato chips and cookies for snacks, and rice and beans and soybean oil or pasta and margarine for dinner? It’s all cheap food but keeps people alive.

    Should we prevent people from having children if they cannot afford the best food for these children? There are limits to the control we can have over the lives of other people. As people attain maturity, they become responsible for their lives. At that time, we can offer solutions to health issues and offer choices to improve their lives. Some will choose to seek a better life and some will choose to buy cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and lottery tickets.

    Even children born to obese mothers are able to choose a healthy lifestyle if they can afford it. I believe it is important to know the basic elements of good health. We can survive and thrive on basic good nutrition.

    Dr. Sears: What would you eat if you lived on a farm? What food would you grow? What animals would you keep?

    • If I lived on a farm, I would probably eat a lot of vegetables and a lot of egg white omelets (which means have a lot of chickens). Although grass-fed beef and range-free chickens are excellent protein sources, the only thing I am personally good at for slaughter is separating egg yolks from egg whites.

  6. Lois, be careful that you don’t take on an “I’m a victim” attitude. Kinda sounding like it in your last post. It (IMHO) is about personal responsibility. I don’t believe for a minute that I could not be at a healthy weight and eat a healthy diet if I were low income. I’ve thought about it, and planned how I would shop and prepare meals if I had only so much money to spend on food. I could do it. I would have to cook, that’s for sure. No fast food restaurants would fit into the picture. I would have to educate myself a bit on nutrition in order to make good choices. But it would be oh so doable. We are just in a mindset that it isn’t.

    • Janet, fortunately I am not a victim, but many people are victims of poverty and lack of knowledge. I have the benefit of having studied nutrition and its effects on the body for 40+ years. After treating and teaching people with diet and nutrition therapy for 30 years, I still see new clients who do not know how to identify foods. You are correct when you say you have to educate yourself a bit on nutrition in order to make good choices. Many people are not aware that what they eat contribute to their health issues. Education is a key factor. Who is responsible for educating the people of the world about healthy eating? Dr. Sears has done an amazing job over the last 16 years, but even he cannot do it all.

      • Okay Lois, he can’t do it all and it’s great that you are involved in the education of said public for as many years as you have been. But this site is for the sharing of information based on what Dr. Sears has worked on/researched for those 16 years. I am not saying that I don’t disagree with some of the things he says, and do AGREE with you that the “social” aspects of nutrition are overlooked and are important too because it runs alot deeper than … just take these supplements and eat this food and it will turn out okay …. but he is the Microbiologist who is researching every day in a lab what effects foods have on our cells … the basis of life.

        • Good point Agreed, but this is a conversation, a verbal exchange of ideas and opinions. If this blog can stimulate people to think, it is indeed a benefit to all.

  7. In “Toxic Fat” you talked about your trials in figuring out the fish oil/GLA/Sesame oil connection. I had a sore tendon at my elbow joint and was using Fish oil 3.6G to 4.8 G of O-3 to try and calm the inflammation, to no avail. Only when I added a cap of GLA (300MG) did I feel any benefit .
    I also began to cook with sesame oil at the same time as i added the GLA . Does the sesame oil help inhibit the D-5 transformation of the the GLA into AA.

    Also what about Chia seed as a source of O-3 and O-6 with the proper ratios that can be combined with the Fish Oil as a source of inflammation defense.

    • One of the drawbacks of omega-3 fatty acids is their inhibition of GLA formation. Without adequate levels of GLA, you can’t make certain powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids such as PGE1. I would start reducing the amount of GLA (it’s pretty high) you are taking to prevent potential future spillover into arachdonic acid (AA). The sesame oil does contain inhibitors of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase that ultimately converts GLA into AA.

      Chia seeds are rich in short-chain omega-3 fatty acids that need to further transformed into longer chain omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA that have anti-inflammatory properites that are the real power of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. You would have to take several pounds of chia seeds to get the same anti-inflammatory benefits of a vastly lower amount of omega-3 fatty acid concentrates rich in EPA and DHA.

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