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The stakes are higher than you might expect

Published January 07. 2012 09:01AM

Food choices are exactly that. Choices. Which means you get to decide.

But what you are deciding is more than a matter of taste or even if you'll gain a couple of pounds. More and more evidence suggests that, to some degree, you could actually be determining your fate.

Or your child's. Especially if you're a pregnant woman.

Research now suggests that when a pregnant woman picks a food she may be doing more than consuming calories or satisfying a craving. She may very well be determining her unborn child's food preferences.

As well as the child's likelihood of becoming obese and developing diabetes and heart disease.

Last March The Globe and Mail, an English newspaper, ran a provocative article by Carolyn Abraham that supported a theory that professor David Barker developed in the 1980s, now known as the developmental origins theory. Like most other experts, Barker believes that your likelihood for obesity or susceptibility to diseases is based on your genetic makeup; it's just that the developmental origins theory doesn't deduce that your genetic makeup was determined thousands of years ago.

It concludes that it occurs while you are in the womb as a direct result of your mother's health and her choice of foods.

According to Abraham's article, Barker first stumbled across this idea in the 1970s when he was realized the poor regions of England and Wales that now had high rates of heart disease deaths also had high rates of infant mortality 40 years before.

At first that didn't make sense to Barker because at that time heart disease was seen as a result of too much "good" living, eating too many expensive meals loaded with fat and sugar, and engaging in very little physical labor. So why would these poor regions, where the adults didn't eat expensive stuff and still engaged in hard physical labor have high rates of heart disease?

Further investigation led Barker to believe it was because the mothers of these heart-diseased adults were malnourished when pregnant. That's because when he traced the fates of 15,000 people born in the poor county of Hertfordshire before 1930, he discovered that those with the lowest birth rates also had the highest risk of heart disease.

Subsequently, related experiments have shown that manipulating the diets of pregnant lab animals can affect offspring. A higher rate of obesity, for instance as well as the creating a host of other energy-processing problems has been the result of these tests, all lending credence to Barker's belief that if a fetus grows in a woman who's malnourished it develops, as Abraham writes, "DNA to hoard every calorie available."

Women today are often malnourished, but not from a lack of food. They are, especially in the U.S., malnourished from eating too much junk food that's virtually devoid of nutrients.

So after birth, according to the developmental origins theory, when these children eat the same junk food as their mothers, their bodies burn the calories at the lowest rate possible to stave off what their bodies perceive as famine.

But it's not really famine only a lack of nutrients hidden in a hoard of horribly fattening carbs. And the end result is chilling.

Today's children are fatter than ever before. Adult Onset diabetes is now called Type 2 diabetes because children as young as 6 now get it. Children developing heart disease or at least the precursors of it is now a concern.

In fact, research performed at the Warwick Medical School and reported upon in a Medical News Today article discovered women deficient in the vitamin B12 gave birth to babies "with features suggestive of them developing diabetes and heart disease soon after birth." The Warwick researchers agree with Barker's theory that a lack of proper nutrition in mothers influences how DNA develops in fetuses, especially affecting whether the baby will develop into one who easily gains weight.

Other related research seems to strengthen the belief that a pregnant woman's food choices affects the baby's DNA. Research performed at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, for instance, has found, according to researcher Julie Menella, that vanilla, carrot, garlic, anise, and mint are "some of the flavors that have been shown to be transmitted to amniotic fluid or mother's milk."

This leads Menella and her fellow researchers to believe that if a pregnant women frequently eats a healthy food not known to be a childhood favorite, like broccoli, her baby will be far more likely to like the stuff than if she did not.

Read next week's column for other possibly unexpected ways in which your food choices affect your health.

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