The saying "You are what you eat" is hardly new, but what about what your relatives ate? A new study suggests maternal grandmothers play a much bigger part in the health of grandchildren than previously believed.
Recent findings were presented by Northwestern University's Dr. Christopher Kuzawa at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.
Kuzawa and his team found grandmothers who consistently ate nutritious food while pregnant and provided optimal nourishment for their children during formative years had heavier, healthier grandchildren.
"In general, measures of nutrition that were obtained when the mother was young or in utero herself were much stronger predictors of her baby's birth weight than are her nutrition and diet during adulthood," Dr. Kuzawa said at the meeting. "Quite a bit of converging evidence suggests that the quantity of calories you consume during pregnancy does not have a big effect on the baby. It is more about pre-pregnancy nutrition and nutrition during early development."
Kuzawa has been studying some 3000 Filipino women since 1983 to discover what effect diet had on their grandchildren, starting with their pregnancies. He studied their children from infancy through adulthood, with these children now in their late 20s.
"There is now much evidence that prenatal undernutrition can permanently alter biology in ways that linger into adulthood to increase disease risk," he said."Heavier birth weights are associated with lower risk for these adult diseases, but only up to a point - at very high birth weights, adult disease risk increases again. Measures of the mother's early life nutrition seem to be more important as predictors of offspring birth weight than her adult nutrition."
Kuzawa's research links to previous studies concerning women exposed to the Dutch Famine as fetuses during the Second World War. These women subsequently gave birth to smaller babies. Being born "small" also increases chances of adult diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
"I think there is some good news here for expectant mothers," Kuzawa added. "Within the bounds of a healthy balanced diet, the overall quantity of food that a mother eats is unlikely to have large effects on her baby's birth weight."