During pregnancy, women usually take great care to ensure that the health and wellbeing of the unborn child is taken care of.
In this journey, diet plays a key role. And while many may remember to eat fruits and vegetables, sometimes women forget to consume sufficient protein which is key to the health of the mother and the unborn child.
A new study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, has found that offspring of females fed on a low-protein diet during pregnancy and lactation (breastfeeding) are significantly more likely to develop prostate cancer as they age.
According to research which was conducted on mouse models at the São Paulo State University's Bioscience Institute in Brazil, a low protein diet impairs prostrate development in the unborn male child hence increasing their incidence of prostate disease when they are much older.
It also causes their prostate gland to be functionally impaired thus making it secret and store less prostate fluid. Yet, this is the fluid that protects and nourishes sperm in semen, making it more dilute. Children with such problems can therefore end up with fertility challenges when they become adults that will make it difficult for them to have children.
Luis Justulin, professor at the university and principal investigator for the study stated that low birth weight induced by maternal undernourishment also leads to altered insulin levels and increased incidence of metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
The main features of metabolic syndrome include insulin resistance, hypertension (high blood pressure), abnormal cholesterol, and an increased risk for blood clotting which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
The pregnant rats included in the study were divided into three groups. The control group was fed the standard diet with sufficient protein (about 17 per cent) during pregnancy and lactation period (21 days).
After weaning, their offspring were also fed the standard diet. No cases of prostate cancer were found in these offspring 540 days after birth, when rats were considered old.
In the second group, female rats were fed a low protein diet (six per cent) only during pregnancy. This reduced their protein intake.
Research shows that 12 per cent is the minimum protein content needed for rats to carry a pregnancy to term without problems.
In the assessment performed 540 days after birth, 33 per cent of their male offspring had developed prostate cancer. This was linked to the low protein consumption that their mothers had during pregnancy.
The third group of rats was fed the low-protein diet throughout pregnancy and lactation. Results showed that 50 per cent of their offspring developed prostate cancer.
The enhanced number of cases was linked to the low protein intake while in the womb as well as during lactation.
Even though this study involved rats, prior studies have shown that the implications are the same in humans.
Inadequate protein intake by pregnant women has been linked to their children developing various chronic health problems as adults.
A research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition shed light into the mechanism through which the adverse effects of low protein intake on pregnant women are passed to their unborn children.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois found that insufficient protein during pregnancy triggers cell destruction or damage in bodies of expectant women through a process known as autogaphy. It also leads to wasting of the affected mothers skeletal muscles.
These genetic changes happening in the body of the mother can be transferred through the umbilical cord and memorised in the skeletal muscles of the unborn child.
This makes them to be naturally predisposed to the muscle wasting and cell damages.
Without proper development and functioning of muscles, the children become prone to a myriad of conditions including poor bone development, muscle deformities, joints problems and a high risk of birth defects.
Worse still, the cell damage can potentially trigger the development of chronic health problems in adulthood such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and Type2 diabetes.
Low protein intake during pregnancy also causes children to be born with low birth weight which comes with an array of birth problems.
Compared to infants of normal weight, these children have an enhanced risk of infections immediately after birth or long-term consequences like delayed motor and social development or learning disabilities.
Major sources of protein that women can eat during pregnancy include egg, beef, organic chicken, fish, legumes and nuts.