Research conducted by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Florida discovered that female rats who consumed a diet high in sugar or fat gave birth to offspring prone to become obese and abuse alcohol and other addictive substances. Mothers concerned about the life-long health of their children may want to pay heed to the findings of the study, though the theory has so far only been tested on laboratory rats. Results of the study were presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The University of Florida’s Dr. Nicole Avena, lead research neuroscientist for the study, presented the team’s findings at the convention, held in Oahu, Hawaii. Her team conducted a series of three studies on female lab rats that each gave birth to 10 to 12 pups.

According to Avena, “the majority of women in the US at child-bearing age are overweight, and this is most likely due to overeating the tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods you find everywhere in our society.” By mimicking this diet in overweight pregnant rats, the team could detect any adverse outcomes their offspring developed in mere months, rather than in the decades it takes a human to reach maturity.

Avena’s research revealed that the offspring of the mother rats who consumed diets rich in fat and sugar quickly became overweight themselves. What’s more, they drank more alcohol than the offspring of mother rats of healthy size who consumed healthy diets during pregnancy.

For the sake of the studies, a normal diet contained the same macronutrient ratio recommended for humans: 25% fat, 25% protein, and 50% carbohydrates. The pregnant rats consuming high-fat diets - 50% fat, 25% protein, and 25% carbohydrate - gave birth to offspring with high levels of triglycerides, which increases the risk of heart disease.

Rats consuming high-sugar diets did not develop elevated triglyceride levels but showed more likelihood of addiction to drugs often abused by humans, including amphetamines. When the offspring of pregnant rats consuming healthy diets were given to other rats to be nursed, differences in development became apparent. When the nursing mothers consumed diets high in sugar during their own pregnancies, the “borrowed” pups they were nursing developed symptoms of addiction that did not develop when their siblings were nursed by healthy mothers.

Dr. Avena said, “the rise in prenatal and childhood obesity and the rise in number of youths abusing alcohol and drugs merits looking into all the possible roots of these growing problems."

Source: Bocarsly ME, Barson JR, Hauca JM, Hoebel BG, Leibowitz SF, Avena NM. Effects of perinatal exposure to palatable diets on body weight and sensitivity to drugs of abuse in rats. Physiology & Behavior. 2012 Nov 5;107(4):568-75.