Center for Public Health Nutrition

Metabolic Imprinting: Effects of the Maternal Environment on Subsequent "Diabesity" Risk

"Genes may load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger." Maxine Hayes, State Health Officer for the Washington State Department of Health.

In line with its goal of integrating the biomedical, public health, and policy aspects of the obesity epidemic, ECOR assembled top researchers for a symposium on November 17, 2005 to share the latest insights from animal and human studies regarding the effects of the maternal and postnatal environment on obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders later in life.

Several implications for public health policy and practice emerged from the latest research findings. They include:

  • Overfeeding babies may condemn them to obesity and diabetes later in life. Since the current practice is to over-feed babies that are born pre-maturely in an effort to help them "catch up" to a normal weight more quickly, these findings are particularly relevant. More research should be directed to evaluate how this practice may influence subsequent risk of "diabesity."
  • Animal studies show that exercise early in life, even if it is discontinued, increases the likelihood for normal-weight later in life. School policies that promote and provide for regular exercise for children may be an important step in obesity prevention.
  • A mother's health during pregnancy has significant implications for the developing fetus. A poor diet during pregnancy may cause changes in the fetus that serve to increase the risk later in life for obesity and other health problems. Policy and programs that support education and access to healthy foods for pregnant women are essential to help prevent obesity.
  • Breast-feeding is protective for obesity later in life. In addition, the mother's obesity and the quality of the maternal diet are directly associated with the quality of milk that is produced. Mothers who consume a high-fat diet produce milk that is high in fat. Policy and programs that promote breast-feeding and health eating for nursing mothers are important preventive public health measures. In addition, preventive measures need to address obesity risk in women before they may become pregnant.

In her conclusion, Maxine Hayes emphasized the sobering fact that it generally takes 17 years to translate research into practice, highlighting the need for increased attention to translational research. A diverse array of public health professionals, clinicians, and public health, behavioral, basic, and clinical researchers attended the symposium.