Benefits of good fats might start before we’re born: new study

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A pregnant woman’s diet could affect how well her baby’s DNA protects against heart disease, cancer and other diseases later in life.

A new study, led by University of Sydney researcher and Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow, Associate Professor Michael Skilton, was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In the observational study of 169 newborns, Professor Skilton and his team looked at whether their mothers’ intake of fats and carbohydrates during pregnancy could be linked to a genetic process called epigenetic ageing in their babies, and if this process might increase the babies’ risk of developing heart disease as adults.

They found a higher maternal intake of saturated and monosaturated fat was associated with changes to this genetic process in the babies and that this process begins before birth.

Epigenetics investigates how the activity of genes can be changed, without changing the DNA structure. Epigenetic age acceleration is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases in adults. But little is known about this process in babies and what it means for their life-long risk factors for heart disease and other conditions.

Analysing saliva from the babies, the researchers found there was a higher rate of epigenetic ageing in babies whose mothers ate more saturated and monosaturated fat during pregnancy. These babies - especially girls - were also more likely to have more body fat than other babies.

They found that in preterm babies, those with greater epigenetic ageing also had a thicker wall of the aorta, the main blood vessel that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the circulatory system.

While the researchers found there was a link between higher fat intake in pregnant women and “accelerated epigenetic ageing”, they could not say if it the fats directly caused this.

Professor Skilton said further research was needed to determine if that was the case.

The research was done at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney and the University of Sydney, in collaboration with researchers from CSIRO.

“We tested the babies’ saliva when they were a few days old to measure a process called DNA methylation which is known to modify the function of genes,” Professor Skilton said.

“We asked the women to complete questionnaires about what they ate while they were pregnant.”

The researchers cross-checked the questionnaire results by analysing their blood samples.

The Heart Foundation, which was a major funder of the study, welcomed the findings.

Heart Foundation chief medical adviser and cardiologist, Professor Garry Jennings, said the study contributed to an emerging area of research.

“Understanding how a mother’s environment, including her diet, affects the epigenetics of a newborn is an important first step in understanding the risk of developing chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease in the future,” Professor Jennings said.

“Further studies are required to confirm a causal link between maternal diet and newborn epigenetic ageing and to examine the impact of these early changes throughout the life course.” 

Professor Jennings said choosing a variety of healthy foods was important for good health for everyone.

“The Heart Foundation recommends eating more vegetables, legumes, fruits and wholegrains, healthy proteins like fish and seafood, with smaller amounts of red meat, while cutting down on highly processed food. This healthy eating pattern will provide a good balance of fats by including healthier unsaturated fats and limiting unhealthy saturated and trans fats.”