Many parents and prospective parents read about the alarming increase in incidences of obesity in children, and wonder how they can protect their children from it. New research from the UK seems to indicate that mothers can help their children to stay slimmer and healthier even before they’re born, by limiting the amount of certain fats they consume during pregnancy. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton report that mothers who consume high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs, which are commonly found in nuts and cooking oils) during their pregnancy have fatter children.
The study assessed the muscle and fat mass of 293 boys and girls at age four and age six, and compared them with the level of PUFAs in blood samples that were taken from their mothers during pregnancy. The researchers found that those children whose mothers had consumed higher levels of omega-6 PUFAs had consistently higher masses of body fat. The same study found an association (although a weaker one) between the levels of omega-3 PUFAs (also known as omega-3 fatty acids, which are primarily found in fish oils) and lower levels of fat and muscle in their offspring.
One fat makes your kids fatter, one fat makes your kids thinner
Dr. Nicholas Harvey, who led the research project, and who is a senior lecturer at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, commented, "Obesity is a rising problem in this country and there have been very few studies of the mother’s fatty acid levels during pregnancy and offspring fat mass. These results suggest that alterations to maternal diet during pregnancy to reduce omega-6 PUFAs intake might have a beneficial effect on the body composition of the developing child."
However, Dr. Rebecca Moon, one of the other study authors, believes that their findings suggest more of a two-pronged approach to wise prenatal diet strategies: "omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs seem to act in opposite directions on fat mass; previous trials have attempted to use omega-3 supplementation to reduce fat mass, but our results suggest that such an approach might work best when combined with a reduction in dietary omega-6 intake." In other words, if you are pregnant and wish to reduce your child’s chances of becoming obese, lower your intake of omega-6 PUFAs and increase your intake of omega-3 PUFAs.
Professor Cyrus Cooper, Professor of Rheumatology at the University of Southampton, and director of the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, noted that this study was one aspect of the research they are conducting into how the diet and lifestyle of women during pregnancy and in a child’s early life affects the child’s bone development and body composition. Cooper said, "This work should help us to design interventions aimed at optimising body composition in childhood and later adulthood and thus improve the health of future generations."
How would a prospective mother follow this recommended diet?
The most effective way of reducing one's consumption of omega-6 PUFAs during pregnancy is to limit your use of common cooking oils such as canola oil, most vegetable oils, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower seed oil, and safflower oil and your intake of nuts such as cashews, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds. To increase your intake of omega-3 PUFAs, take omega-3 dietary supplements and/or increase your intake of salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines.