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Studies Show Diet and Lifestyle Choices of Both Parents Have Multigenerational Health Effects

Story at-a-glance -

  • Several new studies find the health and lifestyle choices of both mother and father have permanent impacts on future generations
  • One study showed sperm can carry the memory of a father’s environment and lifestyle patterns to an embryo; nutritional deficiencies of the father can significantly increase a baby’s risk of birth defects
  • Another new study shows that children and grandchildren of obese fathers can inherit obesity and metabolic problems, even when they eat healthfully
  • Children of overweight or obese mothers are more likely to have children predisposed to obesity; the heavier the mom is, the more significant the effect
  • The number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has nearly quadrupled since 1980 and now hovers around one billion

By Dr. Mercola

What if your lifestyle choices affected not only your own health but also your children's health, for life? What if avoiding exercise actually affected the health of your grandchildren? Would knowing this cause you to make different choices? As far-fetched as this sounds, several recent studies suggest this may be the case.

It will probably not come as much of a surprise that the health and lifestyle choices of pregnant women have been shown to affect the health of their unborn children. However, a groundbreaking new study suggests that the father's lifestyle choices and health might be just as critical as those of the mother.

Research from the University of Adelaide is turning what we thought we knew about the transmission of genetic traits on its head. The Australian study, published in the FASEB Journal,1 found that sperm from obese fathers can raise the obesity risk for their children AND grandchildren.

Molecular signals in these "fat sperm" can somehow lead to obesity and diabetes-like symptoms in two generations of offspring—even when the offspring eat healthfully.

Researchers say this is the first report of both male and female offspring inheriting a metabolic disease due to their father's obesity. These effects appear to be the result of epigenetic processes.

Your Lifestyle Choices May Have Multigenerational Effects

We now know that your genes are malleable, not fixed, influenced and shaped by your environment, thoughts, and emotions. The big surprise is that epigenetic traits can be passed on to your children, and even to subsequent generations.

The Australian study found an increased risk of developing metabolic disease similar to type 2 diabetes for both male and female offspring. And for female offspring, there was an added risk of becoming overweight or obese.

The study also extended into second generation progeny, which showed signs of similar metabolic disorders and obesity, although it was not as pronounced as for the first generation.

Bear in mind, however, that each person has the power to alter their genetic expression based on the lifestyle choices they make, but it's interesting to note that even factors such as a parent's environment and dietary choices can predispose or give you extra protection against certain health problems.

The key to remember is that anytime you're saddled with less than ideal genetic predispositions, you then need to be more mindful about making healthy choices.

Folate Deficiency in Dads May Result in a 30 Percent Higher Risk of Birth Defects

We already know that an expectant mother's diet can affect her unborn children, but it may also affect their tendency to be overweight. One study involving more than 40,000 women and their 91,000 offspring connects the dots between maternal weight gain and childhood obesity.

Children of mothers who put on the most pregnancy weight had a BMI that was 0.43 kg/m2 higher, on average, than those whose mothers gained the least weight.2 Even though BMI is not a great test, it is relatively more accurate in children. But what about dad's nutritional status—could that have similar effects? Yes!

A Canadian study led by Dr. Sarah Kimmins at McGill University reveals significant findings in terms of the impact of the father's nutritional status on his unborn child. The study, involving mice, showed that dad's folate levels (vitamin B9) might be just as important as the mom's to the health and development of their offspring.3,4,5

Sperm carry a "memory" of the father's environment and possibly even of his diet and lifestyle choices to the embryo. Researchers were surprised to witness an almost 30 percent increase in birth defects in the offspring sired by fathers whose levels of folates were low, including severe skeletal abnormalities that included cranio-facial and spinal deformities.

Folate is important for brain and overall neurological health, the development of memory, learning, and other cognitive processes. If you are an expectant father or planning to be one, you should take Dr. Kimmins' advice to heart:

"Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke, and what they drink—and remember they are caretakers of generations to come."

Maternal Obesity Raises Breast Cancer Risk

If you're pregnant, gaining an appropriate amount of maternity weight is not only good for your child's health, but also important for your own future breast cancer risk. Pregnancy has a life-long protective effect for the mother against breast cancer—that is, unless she gains excessive maternity weight, and then those protective benefits may be erased, according to the latest study.

When exposed to high levels of leptin (which happens with significant weight gain), pregnant women lose childbirth's protective effects against breast cancer. These women actually show an increased risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.

Pregnancy permanently turns on genes that allow healthy breast cells to protect themselves against insults that can initiate cancer. It appears that exposure to higher leptin during pregnancy prevents these protective genetic changes from occurring.6 The good news is that you can attenuate these risks by modifying your lifestyle, because so many risk factors are affected by the choices you make every day.

US Infant Death Rates

Maternal obesity is also a factor in infant mortality. Infant mortality rates are highest for babies of obese mothers, followed by those born to overweight mothers, and lowest among healthy weight mothers.7,8

Despite spending more money on health care than any other industrialized nation, more babies die in the US on the day they are born than almost any other developed nation. The US continues to rank 27th in infant mortality among the 30 most developed nations, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In the US, 6.4 infants of every 1,000 will not reach their first birthday. Compare this to Iceland, where infant mortality is only 1.6 deaths per 1,000 births.9,10,11

Yet, you don't hear politicians shouting about our abysmal infant mortality statistics like they do about abortion rates, despite the fact that more than 75 percent of these infant deaths are preventable. More than 35 percent of infant deaths are the result of premature delivery. When infant mortality is high, people actually have more children, so high infant mortality rates actually contribute to overpopulation.12

One Billion People Are Now Obese

A study from the UK presents a sobering new statistic on obesity. The number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has almost quadrupled since 1980, and now hovers around one billion. Yes, one billion people on our little blue planet are overweight or obese.13 If mothers and fathers are able to "pass on" obesity to their children, then we have an even more significant problem on our hands as we look toward the future.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report defines overweight or obese as a body mass index of greater than 25. The world's BMI grew from 23 to 34 percent between 1980 and 2008. The majority of this increase is seen in the developing world, particularly in countries where incomes are rising, such as Egypt and Mexico. In the US, 18 percent of American children between the ages of six and 11 are obese. ODI predicts a "huge increase" in heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes as a result—as if those aren't already too common in today's world.

One in five Americans now dies from obesity.14 Obesity deaths include those related to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, cancer, dementia, and depression, because nearly all have metabolic dysfunction as a common thread.

The number of Americans who are overweight or obese is, sadly, probably even higher because BMI is a flawed tool—it doesn't take into account body fat distribution. BMI, which simply gauges weight in relation to height, significantly underestimates obesity rates and may misclassify up to a quarter of men and nearly half of women. As far as simple indicators go, waist to hip ratio is a better predictor of heart disease risk than body weight or BMI.

What Are the REAL Culprits of the Increase in Obesity?

Although ODI is correct in their conclusion that the modern diet is largely to blame for skyrocketing obesity rates, ODI is incorrect in their conclusions about which foods are the cause. They write:15 "The ODI's Future Diets report says this is due to changing diets and a shift from eating cereals and grains to the consumption of more fats, sugar, oils, and animal products."

They are right about sugar and processed vegetable oils—those are far too prominent in today's diet. But not all fats and animal products are bad, as their statement would imply. And obesity is in large part caused by a diet too high in grains, cereals and processed foods.

A shift away from such products is actually a good thing, but people are still eating too many grains. Most people also consume the wrong types of fats/oils and animal products. I have a problem with such a blanket statement that throws all fats and animal products into one wastebasket—which only perpetuates some very dangerous myths. Saturated fat is not the culprit—processed grain and sugar is. Refined fructose, typically as some form of corn syrup, is now found in virtually every processed food you can find.

Refined fructose actually "programs" your body to consume more calories and store fat. Refined grains are another culprit, as they quickly turn to sugar in your body. These types of carbs (non-vegetable carbs) affect the hormones insulin and leptin, both of which are very potent fat regulators. It is the overconsumption of these highly processed foods that is driving obesity skyward. The last thing you need to do is consume more grains and cereals.

Instead, you need to eat more whole foods, especially vegetables, and moderate your fruit intake based on your insulin and leptin levels. High-quality fats (avocados are an ideal choice, as they're high in healthful fat with virtually no fructose), as well as high-quality animal products, sustainably raised on grass pastures instead of in CAFOs. For more about optimizing your diet, please refer to my optimized nutrition plan.

You're in Greater Control of Your Health Than You Think

A study from Oxford University highlights just how much control you have over your breast cancer risk.16 In England, black and South Asian women have lower rates of breast cancer than white women. This study attributes that difference to lifestyle and reproductive patterns. White women drink more alcohol, have fewer children, and are less likely to breastfeed. These factors, as well as obesity, contribute to higher cancer rates among white women.17

In a large study of postmenopausal women, using data gathered by the Women's Health Initiative, it was concluded that those who followed a healthy lifestyle had a third lower risk of death, including a 20 percent lower chance of dying from cancer, than women who did not practice a healthy lifestyle.18 The take-home message is that you have far greater control over your health than you might think. Lead author of the Oxford study, Dr. Toral Gathani, writes:

"It's important for women of all ethnic groups to understand what are the modifiable risk factors for breast cancer, such as obesity and excessive alcohol consumption, and to take measures to reduce their risk."

Gifts to Your Kids That Keep on Giving

You may not be able to control everything when it comes to your and your children's health. However, we are learning that more and more factors ARE under your control. No longer can you view your newborn's health as "luck of the draw," as if having a baby is like playing some sort of genetic roulette. Due to epigenetics, lifestyle choices of both parents appear to affect the long-term health of children and even grandchildren. Today's unhealthful choices may saddle future generations with health challenges—challenges that could have been prevented.

Your children might be adults but if they aren't reading this newsletter and plan on having children, it is crucial you share this information with them and get them up to date on these important new findings. These studies suggest that it's time to take more responsibility for our health, even before our children are born. If you are going to give future generations "a gift that keeps on giving," why not grace them with health and longevity instead of a life full of unnecessary health hurdles?

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