Study Finds Dad's Diet Can Affect Infant Health

Think only the woman needs to worry about what she eats while trying to conceive? Think again. Dads need to exercise and eat well, too, if they want a healthy baby.

Study Finds Dad's Diet Can Affect Infant Health Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Heads up, to-be dads: It turns out the health of your baby might not just be determined by what the mother eats. A recent study finds that information about a father's weight can be transmitted to his child via his sperm.

You have your dad's appetite

Researchers involved with the University of Copenhagen study analyzed sperm cells from both overweight and lean men. The results indicate that there are different epigenetic marks present in the overweight men—and these markers can influence the next generation's appetite.

"We know that children of obese fathers are more prone to develop obesity themselves—independent of the weight of the mother," Ida Donkin, Ph.D. and the study's first author, says of why she chose to look at this topic. "We also know that obesity and diabetes are diseases with very big inheritable components in their [causes]. If your parents are obese, you have a risk of about 75 percent of developing obesity yourself. But we do not know how the disease is inherited from one generation to the next. Despite exhaustive research trying to investigate genes potentially responsible for this and more than 125 genetic mutations have been discovered to associate to the development of obesity, all the genetic mutations put together cannot explain more than about 10 percent of the actual inheritance. So we have a pretty big question mark still around: How is obesity inherited from parents to children? One explanation could be the transfer of epigenetic information from one generation to the next. Epigenetic information is established in our body's cells in response to our lifestyle and the environment around us. We discovered that the epigenetic factors of semen cells also responds to changes in our lifestyle, and we speculated whether these might be the key to understand how obesity in dads can lead to obesity in children."

According to Dr. Donkin, details about a man's weight are likely transmitted through sperm, but there's still no truly conclusive evidence about this. "We are collecting sperm from fathers-to-be as well as the stem cells from the cord bloods of their newborn babies later at birth. We are looking into it to see if and if so, which, of the epigenetic factor in the sperm cells are actually transmitted to influence the development, and the health, of their children," she says.

Diet vs. weight

But is this information more influenced by a man's weight or by his diet? According to the study's author, we need more evidence to determine this. "We have not separated those two factors. Most likely, it is a combination of both. We are currently trying to investigate exactly what factors in obese males are responsible for the establishment of these marks in their sperm cells. Whether it is the circulating lipids in their blood, their increased glucose levels or something else," Dr. Donkin says.

Dr. Donkin shares a warning for fathers-to-be. "It is very likely that obese humans will also transfer a predisposition to obesity to their children through these epigenetic changes in their sperm cells. I would advise all men—and women—planning to have children, to do their best to live a healthy lifestyle in the period up to conception. To eat healthy, to try to reach a healthy BMI and to exercise regularly," he says. "We are currently analyzing data from a study where we investigated the effect of exercise on the sperm cells, and we can so far see that exercise has a massive effect on the information kept in the sperm cells as well. Moreover, I would advise them to stay away from cigarettes and alcohol. It is unknown if these factors also influences the epigenetic patterns of the sperm cells, but we know for sure that alcohol and smoking influences the motility of the sperm cells directly, making it more difficult to conceive."

So, dads—you heard it here: If you're looking to father a healthy baby, you might be wise to eat a few more salads and hit the gym from time to time.