The nutrition a developing baby receives in the womb is key to how that baby grows and develops, and can be a measure for the risk of disease later in life. Birth weight, placental weight and how a developing baby’s brain and organs form are all affected by different types of nutrients. Studies have shown that eating too much, or not enough, protein and carbohydrates during pregnancy is linked to reduced birth weight, and increased blood pressure later in life. Nutritional imbalances can also increase the risk of preterm birth. Infants born prematurely are at higher risk of childhood obesity, childhood and adulthood heart disease, diabetes and other problems.

Conversely, good nutrition before and during pregnancy can convey protection against certain chronic health conditions. For example, when a pregnant woman eats adequate amounts of calcium, a mineral found in dairy and green leafy vegetables, it helps her baby regulate and maintain good blood pressure throughout childhood, and into later years. And eating plenty of fruits and green vegetables is positively linked with healthy birth weight and insulin sensitivity later in life.

Malnutrition and its timing during critical stages of pregnancy can impact a baby’s development and risk of adult chronic disease. One example is the famous study that examined birth and death records of children born to women who were pregnant during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945. This tragedy showed the developmental impacts that occurred within each trimester of pregnancy. Researchers found that malnutrition early in the developmental stages was associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity later in life. Malnutrition during the second trimester showed an increase in lung problems as an adult, and malnutrition during the third trimester showed an association with insulin resistance or diabetes as an adult  - but this effect could be seen as early as adolescence.

Malnutrition can result from not having enough food to eat, or as many Americans experience, having too much high-calorie food that lacks nutrients. This is referred to as high-calorie malnutrition, which has risen alongside the rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Because of basic biological processes, a pregnant women with diabetes exposes the developing fetus to increased blood sugar. This becomes problematic for the baby after birth because they are unable to maintain the same high blood sugar levels after birth, leading to an increased risk of glucose (sugar) intolerance and adult onset type 2 diabetes. 

Boo, H. A., & Harding, J. E. (2006). The developmental origins of adult disease (Barker) hypothesis. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology,46(1), 4-14.

Lane, R. (2014). Fetal programming, epigenetics, and adult onset disease. Clinics in Perinatology, 41(4), 815-831.

Reynolds, R., Osmond, C., Phillips, D., & Godfrey, K. (2010). Maternal BMI, parity, and pregnancy weight gain: Influences on offspring adiposity in young adulthood. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 95(12), 5365-9