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Diet During Pregnancy May Affect Child’s Risk for Alcohol, Drug Abuse

Almost 50 percent of U.S. women capable of bearing children weigh enough to meet the standard definitions for being overweight or obese. Without doubt, one the main contributors to excess weight in these women (and all other people) is consumption of a diet high in sugar and fat. In a study presented in August 2013 to American Psychological Association, researchers from the University of Florida examined some of the health risks of children born to mothers who consumed high-fat or high-sugar diets during pregnancy. The researchers found that these children apparently have increased risks for heavy alcohol consumption, as well as increased susceptibility to drug abuse.

Background Information

Of all U.S. women, 24.5 percent between the ages of 20 and 44 carry enough body mass to qualify as overweight, according to the authors of a study published in 2009 in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. An additional 23 percent of women in this childbearing age group carry enough body weight to qualify as obese, and roughly 10 percent of obese women weigh enough to qualify as morbidly obese. Excessive calorie consumption is one of the primary identified causes of people becoming overweight or obese. In turn, excessive calorie intake is strongly linked to the consumption of foods that contain large amounts of dietary fat, as well as to the consumption of foods that contain various forms of sugar (especially processed sugar).

Dietary Basics

In order to stay healthy and keep their weight under control, most people need to consume a diet that contains roughly 25 percent protein, 25 percent fat and 50 percent carbohydrates. Within these broad guidelines, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture make a range of more detailed dietary recommendations. Examples of these recommendations include regularly consuming an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables, consuming a variety of low-fat proteins, replacing solid fats with oil-based fats and limiting the intake of processed sugar and other processed foods. Additional recommendations for women of childbearing age include increasing the intake of dietary iron and increasing the intake of a B vitamin called folate or folic acid. Additional recommendations for pregnant women include taking iron supplements and eating plenty of low-mercury seafood.

New Findings

In the study presented to the American Psychological Association, the University of Florida researchers used laboratory testing of rats to help determine the influence of a pregnant woman’s dietary habits on her children’s risks for alcohol and drug problems. Rats are used in this kind of testing because they react in ways that strongly resemble the reactions of human beings, and therefore can act as stand-ins in tests unsuitable for human subjects. Some of the pregnant rats in the study received diets that contained double the recommended amount of fat (50 percent vs. 25 percent), while others received diets supplemented with large amounts of common table sugar (sucrose) or high-fructose corn syrup. A comparison group of pregnant rats ate a properly balanced diet.

After examining the offspring of the pregnant rats with unusually high-fat diets, the researchers concluded that fetal exposure to these diets is linked to substantial increases in the offspring’s level of alcohol consumption during adulthood. This same group of offspring also had high adult blood levels of fats called triglycerides, which can contribute substantially to poor heart health. After examining the offspring of the pregnant rats with diets high in sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup, the researchers concluded that fetal exposure to these diets is also linked to significant increases in adult alcohol consumption. In addition, offspring exposed to high sugar diets in the womb had unusually intense reactions to small doses of the drug amphetamine. As a rule, these types of reactions indicate a heightened susceptibility to the drug’s effects, as well as increased risks for problems with amphetamine abuse or amphetamine addiction.

Considerations

Current scientific evidence indicates that high-fat and high-sugar foods can potentially contribute to the onset of food addiction, an unofficial condition that may produce damaging brain changes similar to the changes associated with substance addiction. The University of Florida researchers believe that their study builds on some of the basic assumptions underlying the concept of food addiction. They also believe that, by demonstrating the drug- and alcohol-related effects of prenatal exposure to high-fat and high-sugar foods, their work may indicate a link between food and substance addictions.

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