High-fat diet during pregnancy may increase risk of mental disorders in offspring, finds study

In the to-do list of an expectant mother, diet occupies the top slot. It is imperative for all moms-to-be to consume nutritious food for a healthy baby. Stressing the need for healthy foods during pregnancy, a new study has revealed some harmful effects of a high-fat diet on both the mother and the unborn child.

According to the research, published in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology on July 21, 2017, eating foods with a high-fat content during pregnancy might impair the development of the brain and the endocrine system of the offspring. Moreover, it can also have a long-term impact on offspring behavior while increasing the risk of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety in children.

Scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Center conducted experiments on non-human primates to understand the effect of a maternal high-fat diet. The study found that the non-human offspring whose mothers consumed high-fat diet during pregnancy developed behavioral changes linked to impaired development of the central serotonin system in the brain. It also revealed that feeding the offspring healthy diet at an early age was not enough to reverse the effect.

“It’s about educating pregnant women about the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy and empowering them and their families to make healthy choices by providing support. We also need to craft public policies that promote healthy lifestyles and diets,” said Elinor Sullivan, lead author of the study.

Researchers segregated 65 female Japanese macaques into two groups. While the first group was fed on a high-fat diet, the other one was kept on a control diet during pregnancy. When they assessed and compared anxiety-like behavior among the 135 offspring, they found comparatively higher incidence of anxiety in offspring (both males and females) exposed to a high-fat diet than those in the control group.

The scientists dug deeper into the physiological differences exhibited by the two groups. They found that the unborn babies exposed to a high-fat diet during gestation and early months might experience the development of impaired neurons that contain serotonin. It is a neurotransmitter present in blood platelets, the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, which is known to stimulate feelings of well-being and happiness. The researchers concluded that what the mother ate during pregnancy could be an important determinant of the mental health of the offspring as consuming a fat-rich diet might lead to neurodevelopmental disorders in them, such as anxiety and depression.

Link between maternal obesity and cognitive disorders

In a previous study, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in May 2017, maternal obesity was correlated to different cognitive disorders and mental health problems in children. The research highlighted the importance of gestational environment in maintaining the long-term health of the fetus. According to the study, a number of factors — including the timing of dietary intervention, age, sex, species and maternal-pup interactions — had a combined effect on both the susceptibility and resistance of the offspring to develop anxiety, depression, memory disorders, and problems related to motivation and attention.

However, the current research is the first one to demonstrate an association between high-fat diet intake by an expectant mother and the development of long-lasting mental health problems in the offspring of non-human primates. In the light of the findings, the researchers recommended the mobilization of public resources to ensure that families of all socioeconomic classes receive healthy food and proper pre- and post-natal care. It could be an effective first step to decrease the prevalence of mental health disorders in future generations.

Treating mental health problems

Mental health disorders, irrespective of age and gender, are debilitating. People with psychiatric problems fight a continuous battle with stress, trauma and emotional instability, which rips their lives apart. However, it is important for such people not to lose hope as mental problems are treatable. With proper medical supervision and support of loved ones, mentally ill people can lead a normal life.

If you or your loved one is grappling with any mental issue, contact 24/7 Mental Health Helpline for information about mental health centers. Chat online or call at our 24/7 helpline 855-653-8178 for more details about mental health rehabilitation centers in the United States.