Pregnant women have long been counseled to maintain proper nutrition. What you eat during those nine months can have lasting effects on your baby.
But what about before you are pregnant? Can what you eat — or don’t — affect your future offspring?
Animal studies show the pregnant mother’s diet can switch fetal genes off and on, which may help explain why certain genetic diseases are passed down through generations.
A new study may be the canary in the coal mine. It shows for the first time that an environmental factor during the first few days of human development can change DNA indefinitely.
Nutritional deficiencies at the time of conception can alter your baby's genes permanently, an international team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine reported in Nature Communications.
The researchers didn’t look at how these genetic changes affect overall fetal development and the study was too short to look at the long term health of the baby. But it provides more evidence from a growing number of studies that suggest similar genetic changes may determine a child’s risk for diseases like diabetes, some mental disorders and autism.
"Can diet affect other genes? What's the biological impact of those [DNA] modifications? At the moment we don't know the answer to those questions," said Andrew Prentice, a nutritionist who contributed to the study. "But subsequent research we have — and haven't [yet] published — says it does matter."
Just as in previous animal studies, the London study showed a human mother’s diet at the earliest stage of embryonic development — conception — determines if certain genes get turned on or off.
This genetic on-and-off switch is controlled by methylation, a biochemical process where human building blocks, known as DNA, are tagged for certain biological functions.
Prentice and his team found that how much the developing embryo’s genes were tagged depended on the levels of a few micronutrients in the mom's blood at the time of conception.