If you’ve ever been expecting (or are currently expecting) a baby, you know how difficult the process can be. You worry about everything until the child comes, and whether you’re adopting, using a surrogate or whether you or your partner are pregnant, it’s a nerve-wracking time when it seems like every little thing can affect the baby’s health.
A question often raised is whether a person’s diet can affect the baby they carry. We know that bacteria can have an adverse effect on a fetus, and we also know that certain foods are bad for babies. For example, pregnant people are advised to avoid certain types of fish that contain mercury. But more generally, can what a person eat, be it before or during pregnancy, affect a baby’s genetics? To understand what can change a baby’s DNA, we need to look closely at an important question: what is epigenetics?
To answer the question of whether diet can affect a baby’s genes, we first need to look at exactly: how genetics works in a fetus. At conception, the egg and sperm combine, and these two contain all the genetic material needed to create a human. As these cells multiply and divide, the genetic information is copied into each new cell.
Genes are parts of DNA that determine traits such as eye color and body type. DNA comes in pairs of 23 chromosomes, with half of each pair coming from each biological parent. While there are exceptions to this rule (such as: genome-wide uniparental disomy or diploidy (GWUPD)where all genes are inherited from one parent), they are extremely rare.
Pregnant people are often pressured to think only of the fetus inside them, not themselves, when making choices. Individuals should consult with their physician about which are the right choices for them. It turns out that there is a direct link between what a pregnant person eats and their baby’s genes, and that link starts before conception.
According to a study published in nature communicationWhat a person eats before becoming pregnant can have a significant impact on a child’s DNA. The team behind this study looked at pregnant people in an area of the Gambia where food availability was dependent on climate. More nutrient-rich foods were eaten during the rainy season than during the dry season, so the researchers looked at 84 people who had conceived during the peak of the rainy season and 83 who had conceived during the peak of the dry season.
They found that nutritional well-being at the time of conception can influence a baby’s genetics. Diet does not change the genes itself, but it can influence which genes are and are not expressed (turned on or off), in the earliest stages of development. This is called epigenetics.
What is epigenetics? Epigenetic changes, which are caused by a person’s behavior or environment, can play a key role in inheriting a metabolic disorder, such as diabetes or insulin resistance. And it’s not just the parents who can influence this; scientists have found that the diet of grandparents and even great-grandparents can also cause epigenetic changes. It’s not clear exactly how our genes hold onto these memories as they’re passed on, but there is more and more evidence that this occurs.
We know that diet and exercise can alter your DNA as an adult, so it’s not surprising that similar effects can be seen in the genes of a developing fetus. In fact, exercise can lower a child’s risk of inheriting an increased risk of diabetes and other harmful medical conditions.
A 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that exercise during pregnancy in rodents can reduce the negative effects a poor diet can have on offspring – so much so that if the parent carrying the child remains active during pregnancy, the risks of passing on a metabolic problem like insulin resistance to a baby is approaching zero.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a healthy lifestyle full of exercise and eating healthy foods is important before conception occurs. But everything is in moderation, and there is no need to worry about whether a delicious meal or skipping a morning drive is harmful to a fetus.
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