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Blame granny’s diet for unhealthy DNA?

Recent research suggests a mother may pass along obesity and related health problems through DNA to children and grandchildren.

Mothers who eat an unhealthy "American" diet not only affect the metabolism of their children, but they can mess with the health of up to three generations, according to research.

While previous studies have linked a mother’s health during pregnancy to her child’s weight later in life, this recent rodent research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests a mother’s fat and sugar may leave an even longer legacy. The research suggests that obesity, and related health problems, can actually be inherited through mitochondrial DNA.

"Our data are the first to show that pregnant mouse mothers with metabolic syndrome can transmit dysfunctional mitochondria through the female bloodline to three generations," Kelle H. Moley, MD, the Washington University School of Medicine's James P. Crane professor of obstetrics and gynecology and senior author of the study, said in a statement. "Importantly, our study indicates oocytes—or mothers' eggs—may carry information that programs mitochondrial dysfunction throughout the entire organism."

The researchers fed mice a high-fat, high-sugar diet that was the rodent equivalent of hitting McDonald's every day—about 60 percent fat and 20 percent sugar. Their offspring ate a controlled diet of standard mouse chow, high in protein and low in sugar and fat. Despite the healthy diet, the pups, grand pups and great-grand pups developed insulin resistance and other metabolic problems. Researchers found abnormal mitochondria in muscle and skeletal tissue of the mice.

More research is needed to see if a consistent diet low in fat and sugar, as well as regular exercise, could reverse this lousy legacy. The results were published in the journal Cell Reports.

"In any case, eating nutritiously is critical," Moley said. "Over the decades, our diets have worsened, in large part due to processed foods and fast foods. We're seeing the effects in the current obesity crisis. Research, including this study, points to poor maternal nutrition and a predisposition to obesity." 

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