How Your Diet Affects Your Offspring's Health (Even Before Conception)

Most parents realise their dieting habits can have an adverse affect on the development of their baby. However, it turns out that environmental factors prior to conception have more influence on a child's future than previously thought. Your lifestyle choices can greatly influence your offspring's genes and impact their long term health -- before they even exist.

Baby picture from Shutterstock

A new research paper in international journal Science has cast fresh light on how parental influences can affect the health of potential offspring before they are conceived. In short, the stored environmental factors in the egg and sperm contribute more than just genetic material to the child which can result in a "pre-programming" for poor health.

It has only been over the past decade that the science community has begun seriously discussing how parental health affects offspring at the moment of conception. This new report follows five years of international research.

Their findings show that parental history and experiences exert effects through epigenomic information not contained in the DNA sequence, including variations in sperm and oocyte cytosine methylation and chromatin patterning, noncoding RNAs, and mitochondria.

"Many things we do in the lead up to conceiving is having an impact on the future development of the child -- from the age of the parents, to poor diet, obesity, smoking and many other factors, all of which influence environmental signals transmitted into the embryo," explained the study's co-author, Professor Sarah Robertson.

"We can now say with great certainty that the [unborn] child doesn't quite start from scratch – they already carry over a legacy of factors from their parents' experiences that can shape development in the fetus and after birth. Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they've even started life."

These "burdens" can include everything from a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease to psychological conditions such as anxiety and even immune dysfunction. The damaged building blocks can come from either the mother or the father, which means it's not just the mum who needs to stay fit and healthy.

So is there anything prospective parents can do, or is the damage done the moment they become obese? According to Robertson, it's never too late to kill detrimental "pre-programming" in its tracks. While there's not much you can do about your age, improving your diet in the months prior to conception can help give your offspring's genes a fighting chance.

"A few lifestyle changes by potential parents and improvements in the right direction, especially in the months leading up to conception, could have a lasting, positive benefit for the future of their child," Robertson explained.

So there you have it: if you want to be a parent, it might be a good idea to lay off the hot dogs for a while.

Parenting from before conception [Science]


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