Women who eat diets high in fat and junk foods risk damaging the health of three future generations of their family, according to new research.
Their poor eating habits could cause obesity, diabetes and addiction to alcohol or drugs in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren even if their offspring eat well, warn scientists.
Experiments found female mice who consumed a high-fat diet before, during and after pregnancy passed on metabolic problems and addictive tendencies through their bloodline.
Researchers at the University of Zurich said that the lasting effects of fatty diets of female mice suggest that women need to be warned that relying on fast food could not only endanger their lives but risks the health of generations to come.
Diets high in fatty and processed foods may cause metabolic and psychological changes not just to offspring, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren too, raising risks of obesity
Corresponding author Dr Daria Peleg-Raibstein said: ‘Most studies so far have only looked at the second generation or followed the long-term effects of obesity and diabetes on the immediate offspring.
‘This study is the first to look at the effects of maternal overeating up until the third generation in the context of addiction as well as obesity.’
It adds to a growing body of evidence that eating too many hamburgers, pizzas, chicken nuggets and chips alters genes – that are then inherited by offspring.
Experts say the phenomenon not only applies to mothers but fathers as well.
It didn’t matter that the original female mice that were fed high-fat diets never became obese themselves, nor that none of the following generations consumed a high-fat diet – the genetic damage was done.
Dr Peleg-Raibstein said: ‘To combat the current obesity epidemic, it is important to identify the underlying mechanisms and to find ways for early prevention.
‘The research could help improve health advice and education for pregnant and breastfeeding couples and give their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren a better chance of a healthy lifestyle.
‘It may also provide a way of identifying risk factors for how people develop obesity and addiction and suggest early interventions for at-risk groups.’
In the study, published in Translational Psychiatry, female mice were fed either a high-fat or standard laboratory diet for nine weeks before mating and then during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Dr Peleg-Rabstein and her colleagues then measured body weight, insulin sensitivity, metabolic rates and blood plasma levels such as insulin and cholesterol in the second and third generations.
In behavioral experiments, they investigated whether the mice chose a high-fat diet over a standard laboratory diet or an alcohol solution over water, and assessed their activity levels after exposure to amphetamines.
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the mice with high-fat diets were all more prone to addictive behaviors, though by the third generation the females’ predisposition for obesity seemed to normalize.
‘Obesity can be something that is already programmed in the fetus, in utero’ said Dr Peleg-Raibstein.
‘There’s something that happens very early in the development of offspring that led to a kind of addictive-like brain and this led to over-eating.’
She says that the ‘hedonic’ behavior was not limited to food, but was also seen in the tendency of these animals pursue and consume alcohol and drugs.
While in the mother’s womb, a fetus’s brain is developing, including ‘the connectivity between different regions,’ explained Dr Peleg-Raibstein.
‘That could all change in this time period and then this child or offspring has a higher risk of this kind of psychopathology and metabolic disorder.’
Though Dr Peleg-Raibstein says her team’s research is ‘highly translational,’ meaning it has close correlations to humans, it’s too soon to say that exactly the same phenomena happen in women and their bloodlines.
‘But studying effects of maternal over-eating is almost impossible to do in people because there are so many confounding factors, such as socio-economic background, the parents’ food preferences or their existing health conditions,’ Dr Peleg-Raibstein.
‘The mouse model allowed us to study the effects of a high-fat diet on subsequent generations without these factors.’
The Western diet is characterized by a high intake of fat, salt and sugar that can damage the heart, kidneys and waistline.
And while giving in to the occasional craving won’t be disastrous for future generations, keeping junk food to a minimum would be wise, Dr Peleg-Raibstein says.
‘We are exposed to more and more processed and junk food because it’s easier and we’re living stressful lives and this is the easiest, fastest way to get food and consume it, and it has addictive qualities to it. It’s tastier than eating a salad or something healthy,’ she explains.
‘It’s not that women aren’t allowed to eat anything that is not healthy, they just cannot consume highly processed foods that contain a high percentage of processed sugar, salt and fat every day for every meal.’