Previous research has shown that what mothers eat during pregnancy affects the health of their offspring. But now, a new study suggests that a father’s diet prior to conception could also play an important role in their child’s health, particularly when it comes to consumption of folate.
Fathers need to think about diet just as much as the mother
A research study led by Sarah Kimmins of McGill University in Canada, says that in order for mothers to help prevent miscarriages and birth defects, it is well known that they must consume sufficient levels of folate.
But the investigators noted that whether a father’s folate levels play an important role in the development of their offspring has been under-studied, so they set up a mouse study to answer this question.
Sarah Kimmins says their findings suggest that fathers need to think about what they eat, smoke and drink just as much as mothers do, as their lifestyle choices could impact future generations.
In 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required manufacturers to add folate to enriched breads, flours, cereals, cornmeals, pastas, rice and many other grain products, since these products are highly consumed in the US.
Although folate is added to many foods, fathers who have diets that are high in fat or who are obese may be unable to metabolize folate in the same way as those who have sufficient levels of the vitamin.
Folate deficiency linked to increased risk of birth defects
To investigate this further, the research team conducted a mouse study in which they compared offspring of fathers who had sufficient folate levels to the offspring of fathers who had low folate levels.
Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that offspring of mice fathers who had insufficient folate levels had a 30% increase in birth defects, such as cranio-facial and spinal deformities, compared with offspring of fathers who had adequate levels of the vitamin.
Explaining the reasons behind their findings, the researchers note that there are areas of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to lifestyle choices, particularly diet. The epigenome can influence the way in which genes are activated and how certain information is passed on to offspring.
They say that the sperm can carry a “memory” of a father’s lifestyle choices and diet, and the information from a father’s diet is transferred to an “epigenomic map,” which can influence a child’s development.