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Ann Nutr Metab. 2014;64 Suppl 1:8-17. doi: 10.1159/000362608. Epub 2014 Jul 23.

Transmission of obesity-adiposity and related disorders from the mother to the baby.

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Diabetes Unit, King Edward Memorial Hospital and Research Center, Pune, India.


The conventional aetiological model of obesity and diabetes proposes a genetic predisposition and a precipitation by an unhealthy adult lifestyle. This hypothesis was challenged by David Barker who proposed that the intrauterine environment influences the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The original idea was based on fetal undernutrition because lower birth weight was associated with a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. However, soon it was clear that the association was U shaped, and that the increased risk in large babies was driven by maternal obesity and diabetes. A number of human and animal studies have refined our ideas of 'fetal programming', which is now thought to be related to acquired chemical changes in DNA (methylation), histones (acetylation and other) and the role of non-coding miRNAs. Maternal nutritional disturbances are the major programming stimulus, in addition to a deranged metabolism, infections, maternal stress, extreme atmospheric temperature, etc. The first demonstration of a link between fetal 'starvation' and future ill-health was in the Dutch Hunger Winter studies. In the prospective Pune Maternal Nutrition Study, we found that small and thin Indian babies were more adipose compared to larger English babies, and their higher risk of future diabetes was reflected in higher insulin and leptin and lower adiponectin concentrations in the cord blood. This phenotype was partly related to a deranged 1-carbon metabolism due to an imbalance in vitamin B12 (low) and folate (high) nutrition, which was also related to insulin resistance in the offspring. Maternal obesity and diabetes have made an increasing contribution to childhood obesity and diabetes at a young age. This was prominently shown in Pima Indians but is now obvious in all other populations. The best window of opportunity to prevent fetal programming of NCDs is in the periconceptional period. This is the period when gametogenesis, fertilisation, implantation, embryogenesis and placentation occur. Improving the nutrition and the health of young girls could make a substantial contribution to reducing the rapidly rising epidemic of NCDs in the world. This is referred to as 'primordial' prevention.

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