Despite a Mother's Weight, a High Fat Diet During Pregnancy Can Lead to Liver Damage in Newborns

01/20/09  Portland, Ore.

OHSU research reveals dangers of a high fat diet during pregnancy 

New Oregon Health & Science University research reveals consumption of an excessively high fat diet during pregnancy can lead to liver disease in newborns. The research, which was conducted at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center, is featured in the current online edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation and will be published in print at a later date.

“Many Americans assume that being fat during pregnancy equates as being unhealthy for the baby and being skinny results in a healthy pregnancy; however, that is not necessarily true.” said Kevin Grove, Ph.D., a scientist in ONPRC’s Division of Neuroscience.  “Our research suggests that consumption of a diet high in saturated fats during pregnancy in both obese and lean individuals may be linked to the increase in fatty liver disease in children.”

To conduct the study, researchers fed macaque monkeys either a normal healthy diet or diet high in saturated fats – comparable to the typical American diet.  Like humans, some monkeys eating the high fat diet developed obesity and others maintained a normal body weight.  However, when investigating the fetal and infant offspring of these animals it was observed that all offspring of animals consuming a high fat diet had signs of fatty liver disease.  Furthermore, all of the high fat diet babies, whether the mothers were obese and lean, had increased body fat compared to babies born to animals eating a lower fat diet.  Finally, it was demonstrated that feeding a low fat diet to obese animals protected the offspring from developing fatty livers.

“This does not suggest that human mothers should entirely eliminate fat from their diets,” warned Dr. Grove. “However, it does suggest that even for those that can consume excess calories and not gain weight, the same might not be said for their baby.  These studies illustrate how the fetus is vulnerable to excess fats and does not properly store or utilize them.”

Based on these findings and previous data, researchers and clinicians believe this research suggests there needs to be a consensus among health professionals regarding the preferred and balance of the diet that should be recommended to expectant mothers.

“Fatty liver disease is a serious and growing concern in both the pediatric and adult age group,” said Daniel Marks, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of pediatric endocrinology in the OHSU School of Medicine.  “The finding that consuming a western style diet during pregnancy can lead to fatty liver disease in the offspring is certainly alarming and has important implications for public health.  On the other hand, the finding that normalizing the maternal diet reverses this bad outcome in the offspring, even in the face of ongoing maternal obesity, provides reason to be optimistic that this research can be quickly translated to help improve the health of our newborn population.”

Grove and his colleagues believe this data does not only pertain to the liver. They also believe high fat diets influence other areas of development such as the brain and pancreas. In future studies the researchers hope to greater understand the role of diet in development and methods for promoting increased health of newborn children through proper maternal eating. 

About ONPRC

The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university, and only academic health center. As Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government), OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves more than 184,000 patients, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,900 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to each county in the state.