Mum’s diet may play a role in the earlier development of diabetesWritten by Elspeth Stewart
It is widely acknowledged that a healthy diet during pregnancy can make a difference to the health of both mother and child. A new piece of research coming out of Cambridge University, in a study lead by Susan Ozanne, has highlighted how maternal diets may be linked to the earlier progression of type II diabetes in the next generation.
This research, carried out in mice, demonstrate that a low-protein diet caused changes to gene expression leading to a reduction in a protein required for beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin effectively (Hnf4a). If this takes place, the beta cells ‘age’ prematurely and struggle to maintain a normal insulin response. Similar beta cell ‘aging’ has been identified in people with type II diabetes but research is yet to demonstrate this particular dietary association in human studies. Given the ethical considerations of carrying out research around pregnancy it may be a little more difficult to demonstrate.
Where's the protein?
As a nutritional therapist looking at the diets of new clients, I often find myself encouraging people to look at how they might include more protein to improve their health. The explosion of convenience foods since the 70s has significantly changed the way people eat and prepare food. The diet most people now follow is quite carbohydrate rich and the bulk of protein seems to be consumed at dinnertime. A typical food diary I might see includes:
cereal or toast for a quick, easy breakfast
a sandwich for lunch on the go
biscuits, fruit, flavoured yoghurt or crisps for a snack
juice, soft drinks or sweetened tea or coffee as drinks through the day
Even dinner can be quite carbohydrate-heavy with pizza, pasta, noodles and rice dishes. So unless taking care to select foods that contain a reasonable amount of protein and plenty of vegetables, it is easy to end up with a diet that is predominantly carbohydrate based.
Referring back to the study on mice, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that a similar process may have been taking place in humans over the last 30 years, contributing to the current epidemic of diabetes. It is not unusual now for teenagers to be diagnosed with type II diabetes, a condition once associated with old age.
Our diet influences the expression of genes
Research into epigenetics (how diet and environment can shape the way our genes are expressed) is starting to demonstrate clearly that our health is not entirely fixed in our DNA and that we have the power to shape how genes are expressed through modifying our diet, exercise and stress levels. This is great news for anyone who wants to take positive control of their health.
Good nutrition during pregnancy is essential
If starting a family, it is essential to recognise the importance of a healthy diet and how you can eat in a way that will not only keep you and the baby well in the short term, but also lay a foundation for good health in years to come.