Why having an overweight mother could lead to you being obese as an adult

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UPDATED:

15:07 GMT, 14 May 2012

Overweight mothers-to-be could be condemning their unborn children to decades of ill-health.

Research has shown that men and women whose mothers were carrying extra pounds when pregnant are more likely to be fat and unhealthy themselves – even when in their 30s.

While it is well-known that overweight mothers-to-be risk having big babies, who grow into overweight children, this study is one of the first to show that the legacy can still be felt years later.

And not only does it affect weight but overall health, including blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Children whose mothers put on lots of weight while carrying them were likely to be overweight adults

Children whose mothers put on lots of weight while carrying them were likely to become overweight adults (posed picture)

Taken together, such changes could raise the risk of a host of ills, from strokes, to diabetes and heart attacks.

The findings, from a study of women who give birth in Jerusalem in the mid-1970s and their children – come amid fears that obesity among pregnant British women is reaching epidemic proportions.

Almost half of women of child-bearing age are overweight or obese and more than 15 per cent of pregnant women are dangerously overweight.

The researchers weighed and measured 1,400 men and women aged 32 years and did a series of blood tests.

The results were then compared with data collected about their mothers when they gave birth to them.

The analysis, published in the journal Circulation, showed a clear links between the two.

The adults whose mothers were the most overweight before becoming pregnant were heavier than the sons and daughters of the lightest women.

Waistlines were on average more than three inches bigger, blood pressure was higher, levels of dangerous blood fats were higher and readings for ‘good’ cholesterol lower.

Men and women whose mothers put on lots of weight while carrying them were also more likely to be too heavy for their height as adults.

Lead researcher Dr Hagit Hochner, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: ‘We know now that events occurring early in life to foetuses have long-lasting consequences for the health of the adult.’

Study co-author, Professor Orly Manor, said: ‘In an age of an “overweight epidemic” in the world, it is important to know that factors that are involved in leading to overweight and other health risks.

‘This understanding makes it essential that we identify these early windows of opportunity in which we can intervene in order to reduce the risks of chronic illness later in life.’

Various factors are thought to be behind the phenomenon. For instance, the mother may pass on ‘fat’ genes and unhealthy eating habits to her child.

But conditions in the womb are also thought to be important.

For instance, exposure to high amounts of sugar and fat may lead to long-lasting changes in appetite control or the storage of fat.

Obesity also cuts the chances of pregnancy and obese mothers-to-be are more likely to need a Caesarean section and are at greater risk of losing blood while giving birth.

Their children are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first weeks or months of life and to suffer other birth defects such as club foot or cleft lip.

Concern about the numerous harms is so high that British doctors have started to medicate babies in the womb, in a desperate attempt to stop them from being born obese.

If the NHS trial is a success, the treatment could be in widespread use in as little as five years, with tens of thousands of obese mothers-to-be drugged each year.

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said the Israeli study underlines how ‘desperately important’ it is for women to get in shape before they conceive.