While most people understand the importance of a pregnant mother’s diet on the health of the baby, new research says the father’s diet before conception is also important.
Researchers at the McGill University
in Canada focused on vitamin B9, also called folate, which is found in green leafy vegetables, cereals, fruit and meats. It is well known that in order to prevent miscarriages and birth defects mothers need to get adequate amounts of folate in their diet.
The McGill research shows that the father’s folate levels may be just as important to the development and health of their offspring as the mother’s, and therefore prospective fathers should also pay attention to their lifestyle and diet.
“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” said McGill researcher Sarah Kimmins. “People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency. And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”
For the study, the researchers used mice, comparing the offspring of fathers with insufficient folate in their diets with the offspring of fathers whose diets contained sufficient levels of the vitamin.
They found that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds, compared to the offspring of mice whose fathers were fed a diet with sufficient folate.
“We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 percent increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient,” said Dr. Romain Lambrot, of McGill’s Deptartment of Animal Science, one of the researchers who worked on the study. “We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both cranio-facial and spinal deformities.”
The research also showed that there are regions of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experience and particularly to diet. And that this information is in turn transferred to a so-called epigenomic map that influences development and may also influence metabolism and disease in the offspring in the long-term.
The epigenome is like a switch, which is affected by environmental cues, and is involved in many diseases including cancer and diabetes. The epigenome influences the way that genes are turned on or off, and hence how heritable information gets passed along.
“Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come,” said Kimmins. “If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight and how this information relates to the health of their children.”