A new study written up in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that babies whose mothers do not get enough essential B vitamins around the time of conception may grow up to be obese and suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes.
Using research in a study of female sheep, researchers showed that reducing their intake of B12 and folate prior to pregnancy produced major physical effects in the female sheep's future offspring. At two years old the young sheep were 25% fatter than normal, had significantly raised blood pressure, and already showed signs of insulin resistance.
Male offspring were far more affected than females. At that age the young sheep were the equivalent of 20 to 30 years old in human terms. They are now being monitored to see how they progress. Scientists are forecasting, based on these early results, that there is a good chance of them becoming obese, prone to heart disease, and afflicted by Type 2 diabetes.
It is believed that the same pattern might occur in humans, but is masked as people grow older because of the effects of diet and lifestyle.
Women are already advised to watch their intake of folate up to three months before pregnancy. Low folate consumption is associated with neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies. The addition of Vitamin B12 is known to be important for the synthesis of red blood cells, the maintenance of a healthy nervous system, and healthy fetal development. It can be found in red meat, eggs and dairy products, but is absent from most plant foods.
Study leader Dr Kevin Sinclair, from the University of Nottingham, said: "The message here is that women who intend to get pregnant should ensure they have a balanced diet. For folate, they should make sure they get enough green leafy vegetables. They should also eat moderate amounts of red meat, which is the best source of vitamin B12." Obviously, vegetarians will have a problem with that suggestion, and alternatives would include vitamin supplementation.