'Obesity DNA' triggered by poor pregnancy diet
Women who eat badly during pregnancy can change their children's DNA to make them more susceptible to obesity, scientists have discovered.
A poor diet can trigger what are known as epigenetic changes - when alterations in the environment cause changes in DNA - that make offspring more likely to put on more fatty tissue.
A team of international scientists, led by Keith Godfrey of Southampton University, found that epigenetic changes could predict 25pc of the variation in obesity rates at six or nine years.
The study, to be published on April 26 in the journal Diabetes, showed that the epigenetic effect worked independently of how fat or thin the mother was - meaning thin mothers who ate badly were just as likely to cause obesity in their children as fat ones.
The scientists drew their conclusions after measuring epigenetic changes in nearly 300 children at birth, and relating these to obesity rates later in childhood.
Godfrey, professor of epidemiology, said: "We have shown for the first time that susceptibility to obesity cannot simply be attributed to the combination of our genes and our lifestyle, but can be triggered by influences on a baby's development in the womb, including what the mother ate.
"A mother's nutrition while pregnant can cause important epigenetic changes that contribute to her offspring's risk of obesity during childhood."
He added: "This study indicates that measures to prevent childhood obesity should be targeted on improving a mother's nutrition and her baby's development in the womb. "
Professor Mark Hanson, of the British Heart Foundation, said: "This study provides compelling evidence that epigenetic changes, at least in part, explain the link between a poor start to life and later disease risk.
"It strengthens the case for all women of reproductive age having greater access to nutritional, education and lifestyle support to improve the health of the next generation, and to reduce the risk of the conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, which often follow obesity."
The study was primarily funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Institute for Health Research, WellChild (previously Children Nationwide), Arthritis Research UK and the University of Southampton.