Could Eating The Wrong Fat Harm Your Baby?

A new study says eating foods high in the wrong kinds of fat, like cake, cookies or desserts, during pregnancy could put your baby at risk for obesity later in life.

Could Eating The Wrong Fat Harm Your Baby? Monika Olszewska/Shutterstock

These days, most pregnant women generally know what they shouldn't be eating during those all-important nine months of gestation—unpasteurized soft cheeses, deli meats and raw seafood being at the top of the list. Now, a new study is suggesting that a fatty diet during pregnancy and lactation may increase the child's chances of weight gain.

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine found that pregnant rats fed a high-fat diet whose babies continued on that same nutritional regimen after weaning had offspring with feeding controls that were off kilter. Essentially, the babies couldn't tell when they were full. The results were just published in the Journal of Physiology, and indicate a connection between perinatal diet and satiety in the next generation's brain, even before any noticeable weight gain takes place.

Interestingly, in other lab and human studies, a similar effect was observed where high fat consumption during pregnancy meant a greater risk for overweight offspring with diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. It seems that pregnancy and lactation are key times for developing neurocircuits that control brain, stomach, and intestine functioning in self-regulated eating.

Of course, this doesn't mean that other factors, like genetics and various environmental variables, don't also play a role in weight-related health. And because the study was performed on rats we can't seamlessly translate the findings into clear-cut, actionable steps for pregnant women. Still, there's some nutritional advice that all expecting women should consider following.

All fats are not created equal.

According to Alexandra Oppenheimer, MS, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian, it's a good idea to avoid high-fat foods with lots of saturated fat during pregnancy. "Skip the cakes, cookies, and other desserts, which can be high in fat and low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber," she says. "Choose leaner cuts of meat and poultry to lower saturated fat content. [And] avoid foods containing trans fats."

That said, foods with mono- and polyunsaturated fats are all good to have in moderation. "Avocados and nuts are rich in unsaturated fats along with vitamins, minerals, and filling fiber. Salmon supplies omega-3 fats, which are especially important during pregnancy for the baby's brain development," she says.

Eat all kinds of veggies.

Another recent study indicates that women in their childbearing years aren't eating nearly enough vegetables—only about 50% of the recommended amount. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends about 17.5 to 21 cups of veggies per week, with about 5 to 6 being starchy varieties.

Echoing those instructions, Oppenheimer says that pregnant women should eat as wide a variety of different colors and types of vegetables as possible. This might include some dark-green vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce, and kale; red and orange vegetables, like tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin; starchy vegetables, like corn, white potatoes, and green peas; and other veggies like onions, green beans, and cauliflower.

Consuming a moderate amount of healthy fats and an array of veggies should be fairly easy for most women. And if it can prevent you, and your future child, from obesity, then all the more reason to try.