Washington, July 1 : Eating a poor diet when pregnant may cause long-lasting, irreversible damage - from heart disease to diabetes - in offspring, finds a new study in mice.
During the study, Stephanie Bayol and Neil Stickland at the Royal Veterinary College, London, fed female rats a 'junk food' diet of crisps, cheese, muffins and other processed foods throughout pregnancy and lactation.
The offspring, who were overweight at birth, were born with a taste for junk-food themselves.
However, even when fed a healthy diet, the junk-food babies had a host of medical problems that lasted beyond adolescence into adulthood.
The study showed that the rats had increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels - both linked to heart disease.
Insulin and glucose in the blood were also unusually high, known to be a cause of type-2 diabetes.
And the rats remained significantly podgier than normal with extra fat around the kidneys, another diabetes risk factor.
Researchers found that the female offspring were particularly badly affected, expressing high levels of glucose and the appetite-promoting hormone leptin making them very prone to obesity.
"It seems that a mother's diet whilst pregnant and breastfeeding is very important for the long term health of her child," Dr Bayol.
"This does not mean that obesity and poor health is inevitable and it is important that we take care of ourselves and live a healthy lifestyle. But it does mean that mothers must eat responsibly whilst pregnant," Dr Bayol added.
Professor Stickland said: "Humans share a number of fundamental biological systems with rats, so there is good reason to assume the effects we see in rats may be repeated in humans.
"Our research certainly tallies with epidemiological studies linking children's weight to that of their parents," he added.
The new study is published in The Journal of Physiology.