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OHSU research points to high-fat diet as culprit in some birth defects

Primate center study finds connection between fatty livers and stillbirths

The typical high-fat American diet may be responsible for increased stillborns and serious birth defects regardless of whether pregnant women are themselves obese or slender, according to a new animal study at Oregon Health and Science University's National Primate Research Center.

The findings, published in the June issue of the medical journal Endocrinology, are the result of an experiment in which pregnant macaque monkeys were fed either a diet comprised of 32 percent of calories from fat or a diet in which only 14 percent of calories came from fat.

The 32 high-fat diet pregnancies resulted in eight stillborn monkeys. The 26 balanced-diet pregnancies produced one stillborn. In addition, all of the fetuses from the high-fat diet pregnancies had fatty livers, a condition implicated in obesity and diabetes later in life.

Obesity in moms has previously been associated with a variety of birth problems, but the new study narrows the connection further to diet and provides a medical explanation. Lead researcher Antonio Frias, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at OHSU, says that the higher fat diet was associated with a decreased blood flow from the mother to the fetus through the placenta. That blood carries nutrients necessary for the fetus to properly develop.

Monkeys on the high-fat diet decreased the blood flow through the uterus anywhere from 38 percent to 56 percent, and also saw a rise in placental inflammation, also associated with birth problems. The effect held true both for obese maternal monkeys and slender monkeys fed the high-fat diet.

Frias says the study sheds light on an important and disturbing trend that pediatricians have been confronting.

'We're seeing fatty liver in children,' he says. 'Fatty liver is something that's seen in alcoholics. That's something that was very uncommon before (in children). What we found (in the study) is these juveniles on a high-fat diet were born with fatty livers and insulin resistance that puts them at risk for obesity and diabetes during their lifetime.'

Frias says the study should serve as a warning for women.

'Your in utero environment is important in programming the fuels you use,' he says. 'I think the take home message is, if you're pregnant, making healthy food choices will be good for mom, will be good for the pregnancy and may decrease the risk of childhood obesity and metabolic problems.'