Obese Mothers May Give Poor Metabolism to Their Babies, Study Says

Babies born to overweight mothers may be at risk of obesity from the start.

Joslin Diabetes Center

Joslin Diabetes Center/photo provided

It’s no secret that obesity has a hereditary component, but new research from Joslin Diabetes Center shows the extent to which a mother’s weight may affect her child.

Babies born to obese mothers may not be able to properly regulate metabolism and cell energy, according to the study. They may also have higher-than-average levels of lipids—fats and other non-soluble tissues that can build up on artery walls.

“This suggests that already at birth there are detectable metabolic perturbations [characteristic of obesity and type 2 diabetes] resulting from maternal obesity,” corresponding author Elvira Isganaitis, a Joslin endocrinologist and Harvard Medical School pediatrics professor, said in a statement.

Joslin investigators tested the umbilical cells from babies born to 24 obese or overweight mothers in Brazil, and to 13 normal weight mothers. They found that the heavier women’s babies’ cells had low expressions of the genes that control cell energy and lipid metabolism, and that the babies’ umbilical blood had higher-than-normal levels of fatty acids.

The team will need to broaden its research to larger scales and other populations, but Isganaitis says the findings may eventually help doctors develop prenatal tests for babies that are at risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and guide their mothers toward preventive measures.

“If we could come up with tailored interventions—if we could say, take this vitamin, exercise regularly and you can minimize obesity or diabetes risk in your child—I’m sure mothers would do it,” she said.