Middle-aged, flabby and unhealthy Just blame the parents
The Fifties and Sixties radically changed British couples’ habits — sweeping away time-honoured traditions of how people ate, raised their children and behaved socially.
Women tried to keep fashionably slim, took office jobs, bought convenience meals, had babies in quick succession, spurned breastfeeding and felt the pressure of their fast-paced lifestyles.
To our parents’ generation it would have seemed thrilling, but researchers now think these factors change conditions in the womb for women’s developing babies — creating a legacy of serious ill health.
In the Fifties and Sixties, women tried to keep fashionably slim, bought convenience meals, had babies in quick succession and spurned breastfeeding
Experts increasingly fear our rapidly rising epidemics of illnesses — from asthma to heart disease and diabetes — are a result of being born to couples whose only ‘fault’ was keeping up with the exciting lifestyle fashions of the Fifties and Sixties.
Melinda Sothern, a nutrition expert and bestselling diet author at Louisiana State University, is a leading proponent of this idea, calling her theory ‘the obesity trinity’.
She believes that weight problems and associated health complications may be sown in the womb by a variety of factors — but, in particular, three that emerged in the Fifties.
In this era, young women increasingly began to smoke, spurn breastfeeding and restrict their weight during numerous, closely spaced pregnancies. It was, says Ms Sothern, ‘a perfect recipe for obesity’.
Ms Sothern, 55, blames her own battle with weight, and her siblings’ health problems — her brother is diabetic, her sister obese — on this ‘inheritance’.
Her mother was told by her doctor in the Fifties to gain less than 20 lb during pregnancy.
He even suggested smoking to keep weight down. It all sounds so very Mad Men.
Britain's modern-day love of junk food may also be a legacy of the Fifties and Sixties generations
This advice was widely distributed in the Fifties and Sixties as many doctors believed — wrongly — that gaining more weight than this increased pregnant women’s risk of developing the blood-pressure complication pre-eclampsia.
These decades also saw fad-diet crazes which may have been just as damaging. Television broadcasted images of svelte stars.
The first commercially published dieter’s cookery book, The Reducer’s Cookbook, was launched in 1950.
Bestsellers such as Calories Don’t Count, by Herman Taller, preached that ‘starchy’ foods such as potatoes, bread and pasta — now called carbs — were a bad thing and should be shunned in favour of high-protein foods.
This was decades before the Atkins and Dukan diets, but essentially followed the same principles.
Helen Bond, of the British Dietetic Association, says: ‘Before faddy diets, food was just food. Before the rise of processed food, we used to cook from scratch. After that, nutrients began to get missed out of our diets.’
Earlier this year, a study by Professor Keith Godfrey, of Southampton University, showed that eating significantly fewer carbs, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy, can increase a child’s chance of heart disease and diabetes.
‘We have shown for the first time that susceptibility to obesity cannot simply be attributed to the combination of our genes and our lifestyle,’ he declared.
‘It can be triggered by influences on a baby’s development in the womb, including what the mother ate.’
His study, published in the journal Diabetes, indicates that poor maternal diets change the way in which a baby’s genes work.
It is believed low carbs in a pregnant mother’s diet signal to the foetus that it is to be born into a world of famine, where diets are short of energy.
It is not simply that growing babies are malnourished; their bodies develop differently.
Southampton University research shows that when a foetus is undernourished, it alters its genes to prioritise what body parts it is able to grow.
The brain’s growth is fed in preference to abdominal organs such as the liver, kidneys and pancreas, which control levels of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol in adulthood.
Britain’s modern-day love of junk food may also be a legacy of the Fifties and Sixties generations, who eagerly embraced low-nutrition, high-calorie processed foods in the wake of austerity-era rationing.
Mothers unwittingly passed those tastes to their unborn children.
Smoking quickly became fashionable among British women in the Fifties, thanks largely to romantic images of Hollywood sirens lighting up
Last August, Julie Mennella, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, reported that babies develop lifetime food preferences in the womb. She says they can taste food their mothers eat in their amniotic fluid.
Her experiments showed babies whose mothers drank carrot juice while pregnant had a far higher preference for the vegetable.
In this way, Ms Mennella says, children are taught culturally what to enjoy before they appear in the world.
On top of poor gestational diets came smoking, which quickly became fashionable among British women in the Fifties, thanks largely to romantic images of Hollywood sirens lighting up.
Now studies supported by the British Lung Foundation show that babies born to smoking mothers are more likely to develop high blood pressure and heart disease.
Smoking during pregnancy is thought to contribute to obesity risk in offspring because nicotine disrupts mechanisms in the body that control appetite, metabolic rate and fat storage.
It is not only mothers’ smoking that caused weight problems — fathers are implicated, too.
Professor Marcus Pembrey, a clinical geneticist at the Institute of Child Health in London, found that men who smoked while boys have sons who are fatter by the age of nine.
It is believed smoking fathers may have affected sons through ‘epigenetic change’.
This is a process where the chemical behaviour of genes is altered by a person’s lifestyle and environment, and this is then bequeathed to their children in the DNA they pass on to them.
The third factor in our current epidemic of ill health is the dramatic collapse of breastfeeding during Fifties and Sixties.
Breastfeeding is thought to help protect children from developing allergies, and this could be a factor behind soaring rates of asthma
Much of this was due to mass advertising by makers of bottle-feed formulas, which encouraged parents to think that bottle-feeding was the intelligent, aspirational and hygienic way to bring up babies in an elite and modern manner.
Statistics compiled by University College London show that 62 per cent of children born in 1946 were breastfed for at least a month.
But, by 1970, 62 per cent of children were not breastfed at all.
Studies show formula-fed babies have a higher risk of obesity than breastfed babies, perhaps because of metabolic changes or because drinking formula from a bottle is comparatively easier and generally done till a bottle is empty.
Breastfeeding is thought to help protect children from developing allergies, and this could be a factor behind soaring rates of asthma.
It also prevents ovulation, so women bottle-feeding their babies were able to achieve multiple pregnancies over a shorter period of time than before.
But babies born close together can have inferior nutrition during gestation, because the mother’s body does not have time to recover fully from the previous pregnancy.
This can permanently programme a child’s metabolism towards becoming overweight.
All these legacies have helped create unprecedented epidemics of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
But the real tragedy would be if we fail to heed this warning — and pass on these problems to future generations in ever-more intense forms.
British women’s readiness to adopt faddy crash-diets, even when pregnant, continues. It is exacerbated by celebrity mums showing off slim figures only weeks after giving birth.
‘Many of these diets require that you cut out a whole food group such as dairy,’ says Helen Bond.
‘This is worrying, as the calcium it provides is essential for healthy bones in women and their babies.’
On top of all these problems is the one that current generations have largely made their own — overeating.
‘There are women who become clinically obese because they think they don’t need to bother about calorie consumption when pregnant,’ adds Ms Bond.
‘But women only need to increase their food intake in the last trimester, and even then by only 200 calories a day.
‘As ever with these diet-related matters, the message is: “Everything in moderation.” ’