Nov. 11, 2008 -- Eating a high-fat diet during pregnancy may foster fat cravings that start in the womb and last into adulthood.
That's according to researchers from The Rockefeller University in New York. They studied the impact of a high-fat prenatal diet on the offspring of rats.
In lab tests, some pregnant rats were fed a high-fat diet, in which 50% of their calories came from lard and vegetable oil. For comparison, other pregnant rats were on a balanced diet, in which fat made up 20% of their calories.
After weaning, the offspring of the rats on the high-fat prenatal diet were fatter and showed a greater preference for fatty chow, compared to the offspring of rats on the balanced prenatal diet.
The preference for fatty food may trace back to the brain. The offspring of the rats on the high-fat pregnancy diet had more brain cells in an appetite-related brain region than the rats whose mothers had been on a balanced diet during pregnancy.
High levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat, may spur those brain changes in the womb, note the researchers, who included Sarah Leibowitz, PhD, director of The Rockefeller University's Laboratory of Behavioral Neurobiology.
"We've shown that short-term exposure to a high-fat diet in utero produces permanent neurons in the fetal brain that later increase the appetite for fat," Leibowitz says in a news release.
Leibowitz and colleagues didn't study people, but they write that their findings may be a clue about "fetal programming" that may have contributed to the rise in childhood obesity.
The study appears in the Nov. 12 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience. In June, other researchers reported that rats may be more likely to become obese if their mothers ate junk food during pregnancy.