It has long been known that nutrition during pregnancy affects the well-being of her child, but a new study suggests that what a woman eats before she becomes pregnant might also play a significant role.

Published in The FASEB Journal, a study conducted with mice, has found that diet prior to pregnancy chemically alters the mother’s DNA and passes these changes along to their offspring. These DNA modifications known as “epigenetic” changes considerably affect the metabolism of necessary fatty acids within the pups. As a result of these findings, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and other immune disorder research could be radically transformed.

Mihai Niculescu, M.D., Ph.D., study author from Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in Chapel Hill, N.C., explains:

“As parents, we have to understand better that our responsibilities to our children are not only of a social, economical, or educational nature, but that our own biological status can contribute to the fate of our children, and this effect can be long-lasting.”

An earlier study suggested even as the egg first leaves the ovary and begins to mature, it is subject to nutritional deficiencies in the mother that can profoundly affect its ability to grow. With this discovery and further insight into the topic of the biological relationship between mother and child, parents could potentially use their own biological tools to improve the lives of their offspring.

Niculescu and his team split the mice into two groups before pregnancy and gave them a control diet or a diet low in alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. To do this, they kept the number of calories the same and changed the types of fats in the diet. Females were bred with males that were kept on a control diet. Right after the mothers delivered their pups, both groups were split further into two more groups, one receiving a flaxseed oil supplemented diet and the others remaining on the same eating plan as before.

Researchers looked at polyunsaturated fatty acid levels (PUFA) through the blood and liver, as well as the DNA methylation of Fads2, a gene that controls PUFA metabolism. It was found that flaxseed oil produced a change in the chemical alteration in the Fads2 gene, in both moms and pups. The addition of the flaxseed oil expanded the methylation of this gene, resulting in decreased activation of the gene in the pups. Flaxseed oil was not the only factor with influence on Fads2 methylation in pups.

These findings point out that despite flaxseed oil intake, there was still a connection between the methylation of this gene in moms and their pups, meaning that pups inherit this methylation from their mothers. The offspring’s ability to alter PUFAs in their own livers was encouraged by the mother’s diet and by maternal Fads2 methylation level.

Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal concludes:

“New York City may be laughed at by some for banning large, sugary sodas and for encouraging a healthy diet. This report shows that future generations might not find that funny at all. This report adds to the large body of evidence that an inappropriate diet can produce changes in the function of our DNA and the DNA of our children, a process called epigenetics. As we begin to understand the effects of diet on epigenetics, New York may go from being considered a funny ‘nanny-state’ to becoming appreciated as a public health visionary.”

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald