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Junk food can harm a child before it’s even conceived

Unhealthy eating can make breast milk less nutritious.

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By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

Women who gorge on junk food before pregnancy can harm their children before they are even conceived, warns a new study.

picture of woman with fruits showing thumbs up
The researchers say it is vital that women eat a healthy, balanced diet before trying to get pregnant as well as during pregnancy and after.
(Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

Eating lots of fast food - such as burgers, fries and soda - can put both mother and child at risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes later in life, according to the findings.

Bad diets can also affect babies’ well-being, say scientists.

Bingeing on foods high in sugar and fat for even just a short time can raise their risk of deadly diseases.

The research team, from Cambridge University and the University of Chile, found unhealthy eating can make breast milk less nutritious.

Even moms who appear to be a healthy weight could be suffering from hidden conditions such as a fatty liver, often seen in overweight or obese people, if they eat a lot of processed foods.

Eating too much of these foods can lead to scarring of the liver and even liver failure.

Study co-lead author Professor Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, of Cambridge University, said: “Women eating diets that tend to have high sugar and high-fat content may not realize what impact that might be having on their health, especially if there's not an obvious change in their body weight.

“They might have greater adiposity – higher levels of fat mass – which we know is a predictor of many health problems.

“That may not overtly impact on their ability to become pregnant, but could have consequences for the growth of the baby before birth, and the health and wellbeing of the baby after birth.”

Cheerful pregnant young woman sitting on bed and eating ice cream at home
Junk food like ice cream can affect the nutrition of breast milk. (Shift Drive/Shutterstock)

For the study, mice were fed a processed, high-fat pellet with sweetened condensed milk for just three weeks before pregnancy, during the three-week pregnancy itself, and following birth.

This diet was designed to mimic the nutritional content of a fast food burger, fries and sugary soft drink.

The researchers wanted to determine its impacts on fertility, fetus growth and neonatal outcomes.

Even a short-term high fat, high sugar diet impacted the survival of mice pups in the early period after birth, with more babies dying during the time the mother was feeding her offspring.

Milk proteins are hugely important for newborn development but the quality was found to be poor in mouse mothers eating the high fat, high sugar diet.

Obesity has been recreated in mice before but most earlier studies have focused on the effects of very bad diets eaten over a long period.

Professor Sferruzzi-Perri explained: “We wanted to know what was going on because the mothers looked okay, they weren't large in terms of their size.

“What we found was that although the mice seemed to have okay rates of getting pregnant, they did have greater amounts of adipose – fat tissue – in their body in and at the start of pregnancy.

“They ended up with fatty livers, which is really dangerous for the mom, and there was altered formation of the placenta.

“The weight of the fetus itself wasn't affected. They seemed lighter, but it wasn't significant.

“But what was also apparent was that the nutrition to the fetus was changed in pregnancy.

“Then when we looked at how the mom may be supporting the baby after pregnancy, we found that her mammary gland development and her milk protein composition were altered, and that may have been the explanation for the greater health problems of the newborn pups.”

When a larger woman is pregnant, doctors are often most concerned about the risk of diabetes and of the baby growing abnormally.

In moms-to-be who look healthy, subtle but potentially dangerous changes in their health during pregnancy could slip under the radar.

The researchers say it is vital that women are educated about eating a healthy, balanced diet before trying to get pregnant as well as during pregnancy and after.

Professor Sferruzzi-Perri believes pregnancy support should be tailored to individual mothers and worries poverty and inequality may be stopping people from having a healthy and active lifestyle because bad food is often cheap.

She added: “It’s about having a good quality diet for the mom to have good quality milk so the baby can thrive.

“It costs a lot of money to buy healthy food, to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, to buy lean meat.

“Often, the easiest and the cheapest option is to have processed foods, which tend to be high in sugar and fat.

“With the cost of living going up, those families that are already deprived are more likely to be eating foods that are nutritionally low value, because they have less money in their pocket.

“That can have implications not just on their health and wellbeing, but also the health and well-being of their child.

“We also know that this is not only in the immediate period after birth, as unhealthy diets can lead to a lifelong risk of diabetes and heart disease for the child in the longer term.

“So these diets can really create a continuum of negative health impacts, with implications for subsequent generations.”

It is widely believed that Western-style diets high in fat and sugar are leading to a “pandemic” of high body weight and obesity in both developed and developing countries.

More than half of women in many countries are overweight or obese when they conceive, which makes it harder for them to both achieve and maintain a healthy pregnancy.

The findings were published in the journal Acta Physiologica.

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