Moms who eat a high-fat diet before and during pregnancy may be putting their offspring at risk for birth defects, according to new study from British researchers. Published July 6, 2010, in an online edition of the journal Human Molecular Genetics, the study, conducted on mice, found in cases where developing babies were already identified as being genetically at risk for birth defects, a mother's high-fat diet raised the chances for a baby to develop congenital heart disease and cleft palate (two of the most common birth defects) by as much as seven times over mice without genetic predisposition to birth defects.
"We know that poor diet and defective genes can both affect development, but here we have seen the two combine to cause a much greater risk of developing health problems and more severe problems. We are excited by this as it suggests that congenital heart defects may be preventable by measures such as altering maternal diet," says lead author Jamie Bentham of the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics at the Oxford University, in a statement (via Reuters Health).
In humans, scientists are already aware that certain genetic predispositions lead to increased risk for congenital heart defects; other studies have shown that children born to mothers who have diabetes or who are overweight have an increased risk for the defect. But until now, scientists did not know to what extent external factors—such as a mother's diet—could interact with babies' genes.
Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation charity, which part-funded the study, says the findings could shed light on human birth defects. "This research shows that diet during pregnancy can directly affect which genes get switched on in unborn offspring. The study was with mice, but a similar link may exist in humans, leading to some cases of congenital heart disease," he says in an interview with Reuters Health.
Pearson also says the research reinforced the need for pregnant women to have a balanced diet and avoid eating too much fatty food before or during pregnancy.