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January 17, 2013

Polyunsaturated Fats in Pregnancy Influence Bodyfat of Children

PregnancyA recent study conducted at the University of Southampton found that pregnant women with higher plasma levels of omega-6 fatty acids have children with higher fat mass and greater risk of childhood obesity.

At age 4, and, after adjusting for several variables, children’s fat mass was found to be higher in those whose mothers had higher plasma omega-6 levels in pregnancy.  The mother’s omega-3 fatty acid levels showed no correlation with the children’s fat mass:

Study Link - Maternal Plasma Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Status in Late Pregnancy Is Associated with Offspring Body Composition in Childhood.

Quote from the above study:

After adjustment for maternal factors and child factors including height and duration of breast-feeding, maternal plasma n-6 PUFA concentration positively predicted offspring fat mass at 4 yr (β = 0.14 SD/SD; P = 0.01) and 6 yr (β = 0.11 SD/SD; P = 0.04), but there was no association with offspring lean mass at either age (β = 0.005 SD/SD, P = 0.89; and β = 0.008 SD/SD, P = 0.81, respectively). Maternal plasma n-3 PUFA concentration was not associated with offspring fat mass at 4 yr (β = 0.057 SD/SD; P = 0.34) or 6 yr (β = 0.069 SD/SD; P = 0.21).

The researchers conducting the study noted that dietary restriction of omega-6 fatty acid by pregnant women may have positive effects on the body composition of their children.

Study author, Dr Rebecca Moon, was quoted as saying: “Obesity is a rising problem in this country and there have been very few studies of mother’s fatty acid levels during pregnancy and offspring fat mass. These results suggest that alterations to maternal diet during pregnancy to reduce n-6 PUFAs intake might have a beneficial effect on the body composition of the developing child.”

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in many vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, and are more common in the human diet than at any other time in history.  This study is one of the first of its kind in humans showing that polyunsaturated fatty acids may contribute to obesity from the pre-natal period and beyond.

The Low-PUFA Diet

At Integrated Supplements, we’ve written extensively on the metabolic disruption caused by polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and we’ve long advocated a low-PUFA diet for weight control and optimal health.  In previous articles, we’ve cited animal studies which are in keeping with the role of maternal omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in driving obesity in offspring.

In adulthood, fat cells can expand to hold more lipids, but the overall number of fat cells remains largely constant.  It's during gestation and early childhood that the quantity of the body's fat cells is largely determined.  Linoleic acid (an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid) appears to stimulate the production of fat cells at this critical time in development, and animals exposed to large amounts of linoleic acid during gestation and lactation appear to be particularly prone to obesity:

Study Link – Arachidonic acid and prostacyclin signaling promote adipose tissue development: a human health concern?

Quote from the above study:

During the pregnancy–lactation period, mother mice were fed either a high–fat diet rich in linoleic acid, a precursor of arachidonic acid (LO diet), or the same isocaloric diet enriched in linoleic acid and alpha–linolenic acid (LO/LL diet). Body weight from weaning onwards, fat mass, epididymal fat pad weight, and adipocyte size at 8 weeks of age were higher with LO diet than with LO/LL diet. In contrast, prostacyclin receptor–deficient mice fed either diet were similar in this respect, indicating that the prostacyclin signaling contributes to adipose tissue development. These results raise the issue of the high content of linoleic acid of i) ingested lipids during pregnancy and lactation, and ii) formula milk and infant foods in relation to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Similar evidence from animal studies suggests that the obesity–inducing effects of omega–6–rich oils may even increase across generations.  Animals fed vegetable oils produce offspring which are more apt to have both larger and more numerous fat cells and greater fat mass, even with no change in caloric intake.  Several generations of such feeding has been shown to result in offspring exhibiting marked obesity.  If even a similar phenomenon occurs in humans, this would go a long way towards explaining the rapidly increasing rate of obesity (especially childhood obesity) found in recent decades:

Study Link – A Western–like fat diet is sufficient to induce a gradual enhancement in fat mass over generations.

Quote from the above study:

Offspring showed, over four generations, a gradual enhancement in fat mass due to combined hyperplasia and hypertrophy with no change in food intake.

Study Link – Fatty acid composition as an early determinant of childhood obesity.

Quote from the above study:

…changes over decades in the fatty acid composition of dietary fats observed in breast milk and formula milk, i.e. a high increase in [linoleic acid] with slight or no change in [linolenic acid], may be responsible, at least in part, of the dramatic increase in the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity.

The above studies can be found in our article:

A Diet For Long-Term Weight Control and Optimal Health Part 5 – The Role of Modern Fats in Heart Disease, Cancer, and Obesity

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids – Major Players in the Obesity Epidemic  

Strangely, the role of polyunsaturated fats as major players in the obesity epidemic is rarely recognized.  Many are quick to indict sugars (especially uniquely modern variants such as high-fructose corn syrup) as major causative factors - but the role of sugars in the obesity epidemic likely pales in comparison to the role of polyunsaturated fats.  This stance is born out both by the data on food intake over the last several decades, and by the biochemical activities of both categories of food.  In other words, the increase in the intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the past several decades dwarfs the increase in the intake of sugar.  And, unlike sugar (which, assuming other nutrients are present, the body can metabolize efficiently), polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit metabolism and cellular respiration by almost every conceivable mechanism – creating the ideal environment for the accumulation of bodyfat.

Limiting Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

Limiting polyunsaturated fatty acid intake can obviously be somewhat difficult for people who aren’t familiar with the composition of foods.  Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in well-known “junk-foods” (e.g., almost all fried foods, and commercial baked goods), but significant amounts of them can also be found in foods which are often regarded as healthy.  This could include, for example, nuts, seeds, nut butters, flax, almond milk, etc.  Ultimately, rather than focusing on “good or “bad” foods, we advocate that the overall diet be constructed so as to contain approximately 2% of its calories from the polyunsaturated fatty acids.  We’ve written details on how to do that here:

A Diet For Long-Term Weight Control and Optimal Health Part 6 – Essential Fatty Acids and Metabolic Disruption

With a little practice, the low-PUFA diet is simple to construct and not nearly as restrictive as many other dietary philosophies.


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