OUR WEEKEND is complete. Once again, the the New York Times has an article by Olivia Judson, our favorite evolutionary biologist, and a research fellow in biology at Imperial College London: Honey, I Plumped the Kids.
[T]he results of several studies suggest that the very fact of a woman being obese during pregnancy may predispose her children to obesity. For example, one study found that children born to women who have lost weight after radical anti-obesity surgery are less likely to be obese than siblings born before their mother lost weight. Another study looked at women who gained weight between pregnancies; the results showed that babies born after their mothers put on weight tended to be heavier at birth than siblings born beforehand. Since the mother’s genes haven’t changed, the “fat” environment seems likely to be responsible for the effect.
Your Curmudgeon doesn’t really care about fat women and their fat babies, but we nevertheless find ourselves attracted to anything Olivia writes. Continuing:
Why might this happen? Perhaps an “obese” environment in the womb alters the wiring of the developing brain so as to interfere with normal appetite control, fat deposition, taste in food, or metabolism. Studies on other animals suggest that parts of the brain that control appetite develop differently under “obese” conditions. And in humans, one study has found that babies born to obese mothers have lower resting metabolic rates than babies whose mothers are of normal weight.
Yuk! Where is this going?
For most of our evolutionary past, the problem has been avoiding starvation. An environment awash with sugars and fats is, therefore, an evolutionary novelty: in hundreds of millions of years of evolution, this is the first time such foods have been abundant. Giant quantities of fats and sugars have not, historically, been available to a developing fetus, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they do have a harmful impact.
Good point, Olivia. (All your points look good!) Final paragraph:
If this is right, it raises the alarming possibility that the obesity epidemic has a built-in snowball effect. If children born to obese mothers are, owing to the environment in the womb, predisposed to obesity, they may find staying thin especially hard. Reversing the epidemic may thus rest on helping women to lose weight before they conceive and helping them to eat a balanced, non-junk-food diet while they are pregnant. The well-being of the next generation may depend on it.
We have a better idea. Let’s just clone Olivia!