Does nutrient intake during pregnancy affect the health of the baby in later life?

Our researchers have been shedding light on the complex relationship between a mother’s diet during pregnancy and the health of her child in later life.
  • Author's list

    Dr Sara White, Dr Angela Flynn, Professor Lucilla Poston, Paul Seed, Dr Carolyn Gill, Anna Brockbank, Wenneke van Weelden, Professor Karen Lillycrop, Professor Keith Godfrey

    Start date: 2019
    End date: 2020

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Completed projects

Why do we need this research?

Diabetes that is diagnosed during pregnancy – known as gestational diabetes – can lead to health problems for both mother and baby. Scientists also think that it can have an impact on the child’s health in later life. However, the relationship between a pregnant woman’s diet and her child’s future health is complex, especially for women with gestational diabetes. We need to learn more about whether a mother’s lifestyle during pregnancy can genetically ‘programme’ her baby to develop certain health conditions later in life.

What happened in this project?

Previous research has shown that a pregnant woman’s diet during pregnancy, particularly her intake of two nutrients called folate and vitamin B12, can affect her risk of developing gestational diabetes. As part of the UPBEAT trial, which involved more than 1,500 pregnant women with obesity, Tommy’s researchers also found that babies of women with gestational diabetes were more likely to have changes in the DNA found in their umbilical cord blood. These changes were not to the genetic code, but were reversible chemical changes that affect how the body ‘reads’ the DNA, thus altering how active those parts of the DNA are.

In this project, researchers funded by Tommy’s have been finding out whether there is a link between the levels of folate and vitamin B12 in a pregnant woman’s diet and any changes in her baby’s DNA. They measured the folate and vitamin B12 levels in nearly 1,000 blood samples donated by women in the UPBEAT trial, and also looked for changes to the DNA in their babies’ cord blood. 

The team found that just over 1 in 3 of the women were vitamin B12 deficient and around 1 in 20 were folate deficient; just under one third of the women developed gestational diabetes. However, they found that a deficiency in these nutrients was not linked to changes in the DNA found in cord blood. They also found that the levels of these nutrients were not related to the development of gestational diabetes.

What difference will this project make?

This study found no evidence to link vitamin B12 or folate status during pregnancy with either the development of gestational diabetes or future health problems for the baby. However, the findings that around 1 in 3 women were deficient in vitamin B12 and that women with a higher BMI were more likely to have lower levels of folate and vitamin B12 suggest that there is a need for dietary counselling in this high-risk group.

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