According to recent research, eating foods that are high in sugar and fat might harm a nursing mother’s breast milk and the health of her unborn child even before conception.
Even before conception, a mother’s breast milk and the health of her unborn child might be negatively impacted by a diet heavy in sugar and fat, such as burgers, fries, and soft drinks.
According to recent research conducted on lab mice, even very brief exposure to a fast food diet adversely affects women’s health and decreases their capacity to produce nutritious breast milk after giving birth. This may have an impact on the health of the infant and increase the risk that the mother and child would later develop potentially deadly conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Even women who seem to be a healthy weight may be suffering from hidden issues such as a fatty liver, which can be seen in individuals who are overweight or obese, as a result of consuming a diet rich in processed foods, which are often high in fat and sugar. This can result in advanced scarring (cirrhosis) and liver failure.
The new study was conducted by researchers from the Sferruzzi-Perri Lab at the Centre for Trophoblast Research at the University of Cambridge and The Department for the Woman and Newborn Health Promotion at the University of Chile in Santiago. The results were published in the journal Acta Physiologica.
Co-lead author Professor Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, Professor in Fetal and Placental Physiology and a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, said: “Women eating diets that tend to have high sugar and high-fat content may not realize what impact that might be having on their health, especially if there’s not an obvious change in their body weight.
“They might have greater adiposity – higher levels of fat mass – which we know is a predictor of many health problems. That may not overtly impact on their ability to become pregnant but could have consequences for the growth of the baby before birth, and the health and wellbeing of the baby after birth.”
It is well known that a “Western-style” diet heavy in fat and sugar is a major cause of the rising body mass index (BMI) and obesity that is sweeping not just developed nations but also developing countries that are urbanizing, like Chile. As a result, in many populations around the globe, slightly over half of the women (52.7%) are overweight or obese when they conceive, creating difficulties in achieving and sustaining a healthy pregnancy.
Obesity has previously been replicated in mice, but most research has concentrated on the consequences of chronic, long-term high fat, high sugar diets. In this new study, mice were given a diet of processed high-fat pellets with sweetened condensed milk for just three weeks before pregnancy, during the three-week pregnancy itself, and following birth. This diet was designed to imitate the nutritional content of a fast food burger, fries, and sugary beverages. The goal was to determine the impact on fetal development, fertility, and neonatal outcomes.
The researchers discovered that even a short-term high fat, high sugar diet impacted the survival of the mice pups in the early period after birth, with an increased loss during the time the mother was feeding her offspring. Milk proteins are hugely important for newborn development but the quality was found to be poor in mouse mothers eating the high fat, high sugar diet.
“We wanted to know what was going on because the mothers looked okay, they weren’t large in terms of their size. But what we found was that although the mice seemed to have okay rates of getting pregnant, they did have greater amounts of adipose – fat tissue – in their body in and at the start of pregnancy,” said Professor Sferruzzi-Perri.
“They ended up with fatty livers, which is really dangerous for the mum, and there was altered formation of the placenta. The weight of the fetus itself wasn’t affected. They seemed lighter, but it wasn’t significant. But what was also apparent was that the nutrition to the fetus was changed during pregnancy. Then when we looked at how the mum may be supporting the baby after pregnancy, we found that her mammary gland development and her milk protein composition were altered, and that may have been the explanation for the greater health problems of the newborn pups.”
When a woman of a larger size is pregnant, clinicians are often most concerned about the risk of diabetes and abnormal baby growth. But in mums-to-be who look healthy, regardless of their food intake, subtle, but potentially dangerous changes in pregnancy may slip under the radar.
“The striking part is that a short exposure to a diet from just before pregnancy that may not be noticeably changing a woman’s body size or body weight may still be having implications for the mother’s health, the unborn child, and her ability to support the newborn later,” said Professor Sferruzzi-Perri.
“We’re getting more and more information that a mother’s diet is so important. What you’re eating for many years before or just before pregnancy can have quite an impact on the baby’s development.”
Professor Sferruzzi-Perri said it is important for women to be educated about eating a healthy, balanced diet before trying to get pregnant, as well as during the pregnancy and afterward. She would also like to see more pregnancy support tailored to individual mothers, even if they look outwardly healthy. “It’s about having a good quality diet for the mum to have good quality milk so the baby can thrive.”
With fast, processed foods often cheaper to buy, Professor Sferruzzi-Perri fears that poverty and inequality may be barriers to adopting a healthy and active lifestyle. She said: “It costs a lot of money to buy healthy food, to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, to buy lean meat. Often, the easiest and cheapest option is to have processed foods, which tend to be high in sugar and fat. With the cost of living going up, those families that are already deprived are more likely to be eating foods that are nutritionally low value, because they have less money in their pocket.
“That can have implications not just on their health and wellbeing, but also the health and wellbeing of their child. We also know that this is not only in the immediate period after birth, as unhealthy diets can lead to a lifelong risk of diabetes and heart disease for the child in the longer term. So these diets can really create a continuum of negative health impacts, with implications for subsequent generations.”
Reference: “Obesogenic diet in mice compromises maternal metabolic physiology and lactation ability leading to reductions in neonatal viability” by Samantha C. Lean, Alejandro A. Candia, Edina Gulacsi, Giselle C. L. Lee and Amanda N. Sferruzzi-Perri, 26 July 2022, Acta Physiologica.
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