Overeating while pregnant predicts lifetime of obesity for children

Science and Health

Women who gain too much weight during pregnancy put their offspring at risk for becoming overweight and diabetic later on, according to a new study. 

Overnutrition for a fetus or newborn rewires developing brains to crave unhealthy food, researchers at Rutgers University said. Their findings were published in the peer reviewed journal Molecular Metabolism.

To test this theory, the research team provided some mice with unlimited high-fat food during pregnancy and breastfeeding, allowing them to become obese. At the same time, another group of pregnant and breastfeeding mice, were given limitless healthy meals. All the mice overate, but the babies of overweight mothers overate significantly more than the others.

Results indicated that mice born to obese mothers remained lean in adulthood on unlimited healthy food but overate more than mice born to lean mothers when allowed unhealthy food.

Pregnant woman suffers from depression (Illustrative) (credit: Israel Midwives Organization)

What caused the different behaviors?

Professor Mark Rossi, a senior author of the study, said that over-nutrition during pregnancy and nursing appears to rewire the brains of developing children and, potentially, future generations.

“People born to overweight or obese mothers tend to be heavier in adulthood than people born to leaner mothers, and experiments like this suggest that the explanation goes beyond environmental factors such as learning unhealthy eating habits in childhood.” 

Rossi and the team go on to explain that the various behaviors in mice likely come from different connections between two parts of the brain— the hypothalamus and the amygdala. They theorize that the differences come as a result of contradicting forms of maternal nutrition in the early stages. 

What do the findings mean for people who struggle with their weight?

The team noted that their findings could have mixed implications for people born to overweight mothers who struggle with their own weight. The results offer hope that those wanting to stay slim can do so by eating health food. At the same time, it could lead to frustration as results claim that attempts to eat moderate quantities of unhealthy treats may prompt over-consumption, severe weight gain, and ensuing diabetes. 

Researchers expressed hope that the results will lead to potential weight loss therapies. The World Obesity Federation’s 2023 atlas predicts that 51% of the world, or more than 4 billion people, will be obese or overweight within the next 12 years.

“There’s still more work to do because we don’t yet fully understand how these changes are happening, even in mice,” Rossi said. “But each experiment tells us a little more, and each little bit we learn about the processes that drive overeating may uncover a strategy for potential therapies.”