Mothers who eat junk food when pregnant and then during breastfeeding may be putting their children at risk of liver disease, according to a new study from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).

Mothers who eat junk food when pregnant and then during breastfeeding may be putting their children at risk of liver disease, according to the results of a new study from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).

Breast feedingThe study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Society for Endocrinology, suggests that pregnancy and lactation are not the time to overindulge on fatty, salty and sugary foods as this may cause long-term liver damage to the offspring.

Published today in the journal Endocrinology, the study found that rats fed a diet of processed foods rich in energy, fat, sugar and salt such as potato crisps, doughnuts, biscuits and sweets during pregnancy and lactation, gave birth to offspring which developed a liver condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) by the end of adolescence. This puts offspring at risk of liver failure, cirrhosis and cancer early in adult life, compared with offspring born to mothers fed a healthier diet formulated for rodents. The research team behind the study believes the findings have implications for humans.

With rising obesity rates, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is predicted to overtake alcohol consumption as the first cause of chronic liver disease in the next few years. The condition is causing major health concerns because it can progress to life threatening conditions and is responsible for up to 14 per cent of liver transplants in the US.

Obesity prevalence is partly blamed on dramatic changes in dietary habits over the past few decades. It is attributed to an increased consumption of “away from home foods”, snacks and junk foods and the resulting complex interactions between excessive intakes of energy, fat, sugar and salt together with reduced intake of vitamins and micronutrients.

Micrograph of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)Lead author Stéphanie Bayol of the RVC said: “Our study has shown that exposure to such ‘junk food’ diets from foetal life through the maternal diet during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding can significantly contribute to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease early in adult life.”

The same study also identified gender differences in the liver adaptation to ‘junk food’ feeding, which may help explain why men are more predisposed to NAFLD than women. In the study, the livers of male offspring appeared to convert more sugar into fat stored in the liver, than did the females which is more harmful. In a previous study, the team showed that females appeared to store sugar in fat tissue – a safer place.

Dr Bayol said: “We also found that as a result of over-eating, male offspring increased the expression of metabolic genes which may enhance their livers’ vulnerability to further damage such as that caused by moderate alcohol consumption, although this would have to be investigated thoroughly.”

Neil Stickland, who heads the research group at the RVC, believes that mothers should be made aware of the importance of a healthy diet while pregnant and breastfeeding.

Professor Stickland said: “Obesity is causing widespread concerns and there is accumulating evidence that a healthy maternal diet is crucial for the health of future generations. This study further supports previous findings that the obesity epidemic must be tackled from before birth through raising awareness about the importance of healthy eating habits in pregnant and breastfeeding women.”


Breastfeeding image ©
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