Good fat benefits evident in womb

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.

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.

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

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