Attention expectant mothers: Resist those powerful cravings for junk food. That’s the latest word from medical investigators who have found fatty, sugar-laden foods consumed during pregnancy can affect prenatal brain chemistry in ways that can make their children more vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse later in life.
The findings, presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Honolulu this week, are based laboratory studies of rats, but have significant implications for people.
"The majority of women in the U.S. at child-bearing age are overweight, and this is most likely due to overeating the tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods you find everywhere in our society," said Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist with the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Institute. "The rise in prenatal and childhood obesity and the rise in number of youths abusing alcohol and drugs merits looking into all the possible roots of these growing problems."
For the study, Avena and colleagues compared pups of rats that ate regular rodent chow and those on high-fat, sugar-laden diets. The pregnant rats' high-fat diet contained 50 percent fat, 25 percent carbohydrate, and 25 percent protein. The others consumed a diet comparable to what experts recommend for people, with 25 percent fat, 50 percent carbohydrate, and 25 percent protein, Avena said.
The results showed the offspring of rats that ate high-fat or high-sugar diets while pregnant weighed more as adults and demonstrated higher drug-taking and substance-abuse behaviors as adults. They also had significantly higher levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the bloodstream that can increase the risk of heart disease.
Previous research with lab animals and people has shown that overeating foods that taste good alters the brain’s "pleasure centers" and reward systems. That may explain why diets with excessive fat and sugar can lead to increased appetite as well as some addiction-like behaviors, Avena said.
"Our findings suggest that even while [rats are] still in the womb, exposure to high-fat and sugar-rich diets can, in addition to increasing body weight, lead to a predisposition to drink alcohol and a sensitivity to drugs," she said.
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