One study found low birth weight babies were more likely to have high blood pressure during adulthood. Another study found adolescent boys were more likely to have high blood pressure if their mom had low fat stores during pregnancy. Studies have also found links between poor maternal nutrition and a future increased risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease for the baby.
Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., Cardiovascular Physiologist/Researcher with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), says there are four critical periods when diet may influence a child’s future health. The first is during pre-conception, or the health of the mom and her diet at the time the embryo implants in the uterus. The second is during the later stages of pregnancy, when major organs are rapidly developing and growing. The third period occurs in first two years after birth, when the baby is building muscle mass. The fourth period is during early childhood. At this time, low birth weight children tend to gain weight and fat at a much faster rate than their normal-weight peers.
Thornburg says low birth weight babies may be programmed to live on fewer calories. When faced with a normal or high-fat diet, their bodies may not burn calories as quickly, causing them to store more fat. Researchers at OHSU are following three groups of 50 women to see how maternal diet influences the growth of their babies. The first group will be composed of non-pregnant women of reproductive age. The second group includes women in the early stages of pregnancy. These women will be followed with regular ultrasound examinations to track the growth of the baby through the pregnancy. The third group will be made up of women in the last stages of pregnancy (close to giving birth). Investigators will record the size of the baby and correlate that information with the mom’s diet during her pregnancy. For those in the third group, doctors will also take a piece of the placenta to study the genes that control placental growth.
Thornburg says maternal diet may not only be important for her child, but her children’s children as well. He stresses that young girls should make sure they are eating healthy diets so by the time they are ready to become pregnant, their bodies will provide a healthy environment for the growth of the baby.