PREGNANT women should eat plenty of eggs and lean meat to reduce their unborn child's risk of high blood pressure and mental health problems in adulthood, researchers claim.
A nutrient called choline, which is found in meat, eggs, beans and broccoli, could lower the risk of the children developing stress-related illnesses and chronic conditions later in life.
In future, women could even be given choline tablets in the same way folic acid is prescribed today to lower the risk of children being born with defects like spina bifida, experts said.
The researchers from Cornell University studied changes in "epigenetic markers" – chemicals which attach to our DNA and influence how our genes work – in a group of 26 pregnant women in their third trimester.
Epigenetic markers are important because they determine whether individual genes are "switched on", meaning they work properly, or "switched off", making them completely inert.
Some of the women were assigned to take in 480mg of choline per day through their diet and supplements – an amount just above the recommended dose – while others were given 930mg per day.
The larger dose caused more chemicals to be added to the women's DNA, altering genes that regulate hormone activity in the body, researchers found.
Genes that regulate the production of cortisol, a hormone previously linked to lifelong risk of stress and metabolic disorders, were turned down so that levels of it in the babies' blood were 33 per cent lower.
Prof Eva Pressman, who led the study, said mothers who suffer from anxiety and depression – conditions which raise cortisol levels – could benefit from taking choline as a protective measure.
She said : "One day we might prescribe choline in the same way we prescribe folate to all pregnant women. It is cheap and has virtually no side effects at the doses provided in this study.
"While our results won't change practice at this point, the idea that maternal choline intake could essentially change fetal genetic expression into adulthood is quite novel."
Nick Collins Telegraph.co.uk