The World Health Organisation recognises the world-wide epidemic increase of obesity-related cardiovascular and metabolic disease as one of the most important health issues of the new millennium. Although this obesity is in part due to the fact that many of us eat a diet high in saturated fat and sugars and do little exercise, there is emerging evidence that the diet that our mothers consume while we are in the womb and also when breast feeding may lead to health risks associated with obesity.
For many years it has been appreciated that fetal undernutrition associated with low birthweight may "programme" the fetus to develop heart disease in adulthood and this phenomenon has been termed "fetal or developmental programming". Converging lines of evidence now suggest that maternal overnutrition and obesity in pregnancy may be just as harmful to the developing baby as undernutrition. In our review entitled "Experimental models of developmental programming: consequences of exposure to an energy rich diet during development" we describe a range of studies in both humans and experimental models that examine the consequences of a maternal diet that is high in fat or caloric intake. Overall, it appears that an individual's appetite and cardiovascular risk may be "programmed" by excess maternal energy intake so predisposing an individual to diabetes or raised blood pressure later in life.
Also in this issue, our laboratory presents results from a recent study entitled "Developmental programming of aortic and renal structure in offspring of rats fed fat-rich diets in pregnancy". In this paper we show that rats eating a high fat diet when pregnant give birth to offspring that develop abnormalities in their large arteries similar to those associated with heart disease in man. Adult offspring also showed abnormal activity of vital proteins in the kidney.
We do not know what the ideal diet would be during pregnancy, however, it is clear from our research and that of others that maternal obesity and a high saturated fat and calorie intake are not conducive to optimal development of the fetus and newborn, and may increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes in later life.
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