High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause increased respiratory problems in children

By the time they are six, half of all children in the United States require medical attention because of wheezing and other respiratory symptoms. New research conducted at OHSU and published in Physiological Reports demonstrated that a maternal diet high in saturated fat plays a key role in programming airway hyperreactivity—a hallmark of asthma—in their offspring.

Stained liver sections reveal vacuolization only in offspring cohorts actively consuming high-fat diet. Diet cohort legend: NF is normal fat content diet, HF is high fat content diet. The first abbreviation indicates the maternal diet, the second following the hyphen indicates the postnatal diet.
Stained liver sections reveal vacuolization only in offspring cohorts actively consuming a high-fat diet.

Using a mouse model, this research supported findings in observational studies that associate maternal obesity and early life wheezing and asthma. The model removed variables—from genetics and socioeconomic conditions to dietary variation and race—that attend human population studies. In the United States, one in three women with the potential to become pregnant are obese, making childhood respiratory health a potentially widespread public health challenge.

Diet—a high-fat diet and a typical diet—was the only variable in this study, led by Kelvin MacDonald, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics. Induced airway hyperreactivity was evaluated in four cohorts: dams fed a high-fat diet, dams fed a normal-fat diet, offspring weaned to the same diet as their mother, and offspring weaned to the opposing fat content diet.

Whether they were weaned to a normal or a high-fat diet, the offspring of dams fed a high-fat diet experienced greater airway hyperreactivity. The results demonstrated that a maternal diet high in saturated fat during pregnancy and lactation plays a key role in programming adult offspring airway hyperreactivity.

This research builds on a 2016 retrospective cohort study by MacDonald and long-time collaborator Cynthia T. McEvoy, M.D., M.C.R., a professor in the School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. Using data from Kaiser Permanente Northwest, they found that—within a cohort of more than 6,000 pregnancies—children of obese mothers were more likely to use asthma medicines through the first four years of life. The team hopes to now work with Kaiser to identify these same individuals and determine whether the children went on to have asthma.

Proving a direct causal relationship is an important step in advancing research into the long-term consequences for children born to women who are obese or consume a high-fat diet while pregnant.

In addition to MacDonald and Cindy McEvoy, co-authors include Aurelia R. Moran, Ashley J. Scherman, and Astrid S. Platteau from the OHSU School of Medicine.

This work was supported by National Institutes of Health/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development HD057588 02 (K. D. M.), Parker B Francis Fellowship (K. D. M.), Thrasher Foundation (K. D. M). Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute UL1TR000128 (K.D.M. and C.T.M.).