Obesity Risk Linked To Early High-fat Diet
August 31, 2012

Study Finds Diet After Birth Affects Chance Of Obesity

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A new study with rats found that what babies consume after birth can predict whether the child will be at risk for obesity in the future.

To begin, the researchers from Johns Hopkins University discovered that rats of mothers who had diets high in fat, but who were given diets with normal levels of fat didn´t suffer obesity or other related disorders as adult rats. However, baby rats that were given a normal-fat diet while in the womb but then offered a diet high in fat after birth tended to become obese. The team believes that the project shows that what mammalian babies, like humans, consume as newborns and young children could affect their metabolic future. The findings were recently published online in the journal Diabetes.

"Our research confirms that exposure to a high-fat diet right after birth has significant consequences for obesity," explained lead researcher Kellie L.K. Tamashiro, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a prepared statement. "But it also suggests that by putting children on a healthy diet in infancy and early childhood, we can intervene and potentially prevent a future of obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

In the study, the newborn babies that were exposed to diets high in fat through the rat mothers´ breast milk that was high in fat and had a higher chance of gaining extra weight. As well, they showed impaired tolerance, which is a possible sign of diabetes. Lastly, they become insensitive to leptin, a hormone that controls appetite and body weight in humans and rodents. Secreted by fat cells, leptin demonstrates how much fat is in the body and helps the body control food consumption.

The researchers began by giving half of the pregnant rats a normal diet and the other half a diet high in fat. After the rats were conceived, half of the baby rats were given to the mother rats with normal diets and the half were given to the mothers rats with diets high in fat. Baby rats who consumed a diet high in fat before and after birth as well as rats who were nursed with a high fat diet after birth gained more weight and were obese when they were weaned. The rats that were born to mothers with high fat diets but nursed by rats on a normal diet, did not gain weight or develop obesity. With this study, the scientists were able to compare the prenatal versus postnatal exposure for rats.

In moving forward with the study, the scientists are studying whether exercise will help in early rat development and reverse the effects of having the rats exposed to a diet high in fat; these results could possibly be compared to elementary school aged humans.

"These animals – like children – are still developing and responding to their environment, and, as much as possible, we want to make sure they develop properly so bad health consequences don't occur," continued Tamashiro in the statement.

Even though the findings are important in understanding prenatal and postnatal development, the researchers believe that the results cannot directly be applied to humans. They suggest that obstetricians look into options for helping pregnant women. One option is having obese women prevent weight gain during pregnancy by consuming less fat and calories. As well, obese mothers could adjust to a healthier diet during pregnancy and maintain a healthy diet to help their children avoid obesity.

"Obesity rates have increased threefold over the last 20 years," concluded Tamashiro in the statement. "We know it's not because of genetics because our genes don't change that quickly. So we are focusing on the developmental environment. Obese children are developing metabolic disorders earlier, affecting their quality of life and health over the long term. Prevention is probably the best strategy we have."

The study comes at a particular time, as obesity continues to be a growing health issue in the U.S. According to the researchers, obesity is related to other disorders, including arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. They believe that a concern is the consumption of diets high in fat in Western Society. As rates of obesity continue to increase, costs of health care will continue to skyrocket and patient longevity reduces.