There is a lot of information available which confirms that the diet consumed by a mother during pregnancy can greatly influence the health and wellbeing of her children. However, recently a study led by the Canadian McGill University researcher, suggests that a father’s diet before conception may play an equally important role in the health of his offspring. The research also raises concerns about the long-term effects and consequences of current unbalanced Western diets.
The research conducted by Sarah Kimmins, PhD focused on vitamin B9 (folate), which is found in a range of green leafy vegetables, cereals, fruits, and meats. It’s well known that to prevent miscarriages and birth defects, mothers need adequate amounts of folate in their diet. In Ireland, a folic acid supplement is recommended daily (400 microgrammes) for all child bearing women who are sexually active to prevent neural tube defects. It is now of great interest that a father’s diet can influence the health and development of his offspring – a topic which has received almost no attention until recently.
Now research shows for the first time that the father’s folate levels may be just as important to the development and health of his offspring as those of the mother. Indeed, the study suggests that fathers should pay as much attention to their lifestyle and diet before they set out to conceive a child as mothers.
“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast-food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolise folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” Kimmins says. We now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”
The researchers arrived at this conclusion by working with mice and comparing the offspring of fathers with insufficient folate in their diets with the offspring of fathers whose diets contained sufficient levels of the vitamin. They found that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds in the offspring compared with the offspring of mice whose fathers were fed a diet with sufficient folate. It was surprising to see that there was an almost 30% increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folate were insufficient.
The research shows that there are regions of the sperm genetics that are sensitive to life experience and particularly to diet. This information is, in turn, transferred and can influences development and also may influence metabolism and disease in the offspring in the long term. It is important to be aware that these are animal studies and further research is being undertaken to examine nutrient intakes in men for fertility and the health of future generations. To conclude, the research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths and what they drink, and remember they’re caretakers of generations to come.