What is fetal programming and how does it relate to a mother’s nutrition before and during pregnancy?
To put it simply, healthy moms mean healthy babies. It’s commonly accepted that the quality of a woman’s pregnancy determines the well-being of her infant. Less well known is the fact that a baby’s experiences in the womb will influence its health for life.
Fetal programming, also known as prenatal programming, suggests that the environment surrounding the fetus during development plays a key role in determining its disease risk during later stages in life.
A wide body of research known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease has shown that your health as an adult can be traced back to the first 1,000 days of your existence, beginning with the moment of conception (and even before). As a developing organism, a fetus is very “plastic,” meaning adaptation is crucial to its survival. These responses take different forms, but generally negative experiences (exposure to toxins, is a well-known precedent) “program” the fetus for poor health as an adult.
Focusing on the impact of poor nutrition, here’s a snapshot of how fetal programming works.
Pre-Natal Nutrition Programs Your Health
A baby can seem perfectly healthy at birth but if it was poorly nourished as a fetus, its health as an adult has already been compromised. Numerous studies have linked poor nutrition in utero with heightened vulnerability to conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Inadequate nutrition can spark changes in how a baby’s organs develop as well as its hormonal and metabolic responses. The effects of these modifications can last a lifetime.
Good nutrition is important throughout pregnancy but it is particularly vital during the first weeks following conception. Experts tell us this is a crucial developmental window.
It’s worth noting that a woman may not know she is pregnant during all or much of that time, which is why couples should start planning for pregnancy at least three months in advance. This involves basic lifestyle approaches like eliminating processed foods and consuming a nutrient-dense diet of whole foods that provide a broad range of nutrients. At this stage iodine, vitamins b12 and D, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and folate are particularly important. Studies show that during the first few weeks of embryo development, deficiencies in these nutrients can increase the risk of developmental disorders.
Good Nutrition Builds Robust Organs
Every organ has a critical period of development and nutrition plays a key role in determining how well your organs are constructed. If nutrients are scarce, in order to protect its brain a developing fetus will “trade off” growth in less significant organs.
Consider the kidneys. A poorly nourished fetus is likely to produce fewer nephrons, which filter the blood. A kidney with fewer nephrons needs to punch above its weight to do its job, increasing the risk of both hypertension and kidney disease later in life.
Having organs that have been short-changed during development doesn’t guarantee you will develop certain diseases but it does mean you will need to work harder to avoid them.
Diet Makes a Difference to Your Genes
The genes you are born with don’t change but thanks to the science of epigenetics, we know that stressors such as inadequate nutrition incite them to adapt by altering how they express themselves. For instance, data from a famine in Holland during the Second World War linked malnutrition in the early stages of pregnancy to changes in an epigenetic process known as DNA methylation. These modulations predisposed the offspring to metabolic problems later in life, including high blood sugar, a higher BMI, and elevated LDL cholesterol.
Alternations in gene expression triggered in utero can last for a lifetime or they can be modified by lifestyle interventions. One of the best-known studies on the impact of improved nutrition during pregnancy was published in 2003. Researchers fed a group of sickly female agouti mice a diet containing vitamin b12, folic acid, choline, and betaine — nutrients known to improve DNA methylation.
After supplementation, the mice gave birth to healthy babies. The offspring still carried the variant of the gene associated with sickliness but by improving methylation their nutrient-rich diets changed its expression. Perhaps even more surprising, when the offspring became mothers themselves, they gave birth to healthy babies, without further supplementation.
What Moms Can Do
Although there are currently no official dietary guidelines related to pregnancy, experts tend to agree on the importance of consuming nutrient dense (whole) foods, which provide the variety of nutrients necessary to support proper organ formation and the process of cell division that characterizes fetal development.
Adequate protein and healthy fats, in particular omega-3 fatty acids, are essential. Crucial micronutrients include folate, vitamins A, D, B6 and B 12, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and choline. While it is theoretically possible to obtain the required nutrients by eating a wholesome diet, in practical terms it is very challenging. That’s why pregnant women are advised to take a prenatal supplement.
About the Author
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
Fetal Programming Nutrition — Sources
Wadhwa, P et al. Developmental Origins of Health and Disease: Brief History of the Approach and Current Focus on Epigenetic Mechanisms. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine 2009
Bagby, Susa P., Maternal nutrition, Low Nephron Number and Hypertension in Later Life: Pathways of Nutritional Programming. The Journal of Nutrition
Tobi, E. et al. DNA methylation signatures link prenatal famine exposures to growth and metabolism. Nature Communications 2014.