Previous research has shown that what mothers eat during pregnancy affects the health of their offspring. But now, a new study suggests that a father's diet prior to conception could also play an important role in their child's health, particularly when it comes to consumption of folate.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is found naturally in a broad variety of foods, including dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, peas, fruit and fruit juices, dairy products, poultry and meat, eggs, seafood and grains.
In 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required manufacturers to add folate to enriched breads, flours, cereals, cornmeals, pastas, rice and many other grain products, since these products are highly consumed in the US.
The researchers, led by Sarah Kimmins of McGill University in Canada, say that in order for mothers to help prevent miscarriages and birth defects, it is well known that they must consume sufficient levels of folate.
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, a part of the National Institutes of Health, women of childbearing age should have 400 mcg (micrograms) of folate each day from dietary supplements and/or fortified foods, and this increases to 600 mcg a day for pregnant women.
But the investigators note that whether a father's folate levels play an important role in the development of their offspring has been under-studied.
Folate deficiency linked to increased risk of birth defects
To investigate this further, the research team conducted a mouse study in which they compared offspring of fathers who had sufficient folate levels to the offspring of fathers who had low folate levels.
Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that offspring of mice fathers who had insufficient folate levels had a 30% increase in birth defects, such as cranio-facial and spinal deformities, compared with offspring of fathers who had adequate levels of the vitamin.
Explaining the reasons behind their findings, the researchers note that there are areas of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to lifestyle choices, particularly diet. The epigenome can influence the way in which genes are activated and how certain information is passed on to offspring.
They say that the sperm can carry a "memory" of a father's lifestyle choices and diet, and the information from a father's diet is transferred to an "epigenomic map," which can influence a child's development.
Fathers 'need to think about diet just as much as mothers'
Sarah Kimmins says their findings suggest that fathers need to think about what they eat, smoke and drink just as much as mothers do, as their lifestyle choices could impact future generations.
And she notes that although folate is added to many foods, fathers who have diets that are high in fat or who are obese may be unable to metabolize folate in the same way as those who have sufficient levels of the vitamin.
"People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency. And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious."
The researchers say that the next steps from this research will be to collaborate with professionals at a fertility clinic in order to further investigate how a man's diet and weight could impact their child's health.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that a father's occupation may be linked to the risk of birth defects in their infants.