You’re planning to have a baby and all of your “expert” friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have given you advice to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. To do that, your diet must a top priority during conception, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
Although healthy eating is extremely important, during pregnancy there are certain nutrients, such as iron and folic acid, which play very important roles in the development of the fetus. You have probably heard of the importance of women needing an adequate amount of folic acid to improve fertility and prevent birth defects in their unborn children—but something often overlooked is the role that the father’s diet plays as well.
Because research has been very minimal in this area, we may have overlooked the important role paternal healthy eating plays in ensuring a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby.
A recent animal study at McGill University investigated the connection between the father’s diet, including the adequate intake of folic acid, and the health of the offspring. The male mice were exposed to a low dietary folate environment in utero, and then had a folate-deficient diet throughout their life. The control group was provided with a folate sufficient diet, both in-utero and throughout their life. Both groups were bred with female mice consuming a proper folate-sufficient diet. The study found that following a folate-sufficient diet would reap the following benefits:
1. Improve Fertility
The mice consuming folate-deficient diets had a much lower rate of fertility. They were found to only have about a 50% pregnancy rate compared to the mice with folate-sufficient diets that had an 85% pregnancy rate.
2. Prevent Developmental Abnormalities
Almost 30% of the offspring of the mice from the male folate-deficient diet were born with developmental abnormalities compared to only 3% of the offspring of fathers with folate-sufficient diets. Abnormalities included cranio-facial defects such as shortened jaw, limb defects such as underdeveloped fingers and toes, and club feet; and musculoskeletal defects such as spinal malformations. They also found that it could cause mental impairment.
3. Prevent Diseases
Research has shown that environmental factors such as diet can influence a person’s epigenome. The epigenome is comprised of a network of chemical compounds surrounding the DNA. It influences how genes are turned on and off and this information can be passed on to future offspring. Since folate plays a critical role in DNA synthesis, its deficiency may alter certain genes.
In this study, the researchers found that folate deficiency impacted specific genes within the sperm that were transferred to the offspring. These genes have been shown to be implicated in diabetes. Changes in the DNA can lead to increased risks and poor outcomes for chronic diseases, reproduction, and cancer. Further, these altered genes can be passed onto the offspring and future generations.
While specific recommendations cannot yet be determined, healthy eating, which includes lots of folate-rich foods, is encouraged. Dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and asparagus are the best sources of folic acid. It can also be found in nuts, beans, and many fortified grain products.
The media and scientific research often focus on the importance of the mom’s diet during pregnancy—but dad’s diet plays a role too, and potential fathers need to be aware of this when they’re entering this stage of life.
Lambrot, R., et al., “Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes,” Nature Communications 2013; 4(2889): 1-13.
Ubelacker, S., “Your dad’s diet before your conception may have affected your health: study,” CTV News Website, December 10, 2013; http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/your-dad-s-diet-before-your-conception-may-have-affected-your-health-study-1.1583385, last accessed January 14, 2014.
Vanhees, K., et al., “You are what you eat, and so are your children: the impact of the micronutrients on the epigenetic programming of offspring,” Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 2013; 71:271-285.