There is an entire field of research, known as fetal origins, whose raison d’etre is to prove that we are who we are today because of what happened to us in the womb. Stricken with a serious illness at an early age? Must have had something to do with your mother’s behavior while pregnant with you. But mom also deserves the credit if you have lived in good health until a ripe old age.
The theory according to fetal origins scientists is that everything your mother did while you were in her womb — from the air she breathed to her stress level to what she was eating — has affects you throughout the rest of your life. While there is no disputing that what a woman does during pregnancy affects the fetus and then the baby it becomes, many scientists reject the proposition that the diabetes or heart disease you are diagnosed with at age 40 was directly related to your experience in utero.
According to the original theory, a person’s time in the womb is the single most important and influential period of their whole life. The brain and organs of the body are permanently imprinted during this time and fashion our susceptibility to certain diseases, how fast our metabolisms are, our intelligence levels, and the disposition that comes naturally to us.
The field of fetal origins began about 20 years ago in the United Kingdom. A British physician named David Barker discovered that there was a pattern of especially high rates of heart disease throughout the poorest areas of the U.K. He set out to determine why, when cardiovascular problems are thought to mainly afflict the affluent, this held true for the very poor. What he found was a correlation between heart disease in middle age and low birth weight, which often indicates poor prenatal nutrition. In the two decades since Barker’s findings, the same results have been found among numerous studies, including the Nurses’ Health Study in Boston.
Barker’s hypothesis was that when faced with poor nutrition during gestation, the fetus focuses the minimal nutrients it does receive to assist in brain development, leaving other organs lacking. That, in turn, is what is responsible for a weak heart later in life.
This area of research has since been extended to other health connections. Studies at Harvard University have shown that a woman with excessive weight gain during pregnancy is more likely to have a child who is overweight or obese than one who gained a moderate amount of weight. Other studies done at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, NY, found that children born after their mothers had anti-obesity surgery were much less likely to be obese than their siblings who were born prior to the surgery. The researchers suggest that the latter group of children formed normal metabolisms during gestation.
Virtually all scientists now recognize that what a woman does during a pregnancy affects her baby. We are well aware of the devastating and long-term damage done by pregnant women who drink alcohol or use drugs. But most medical minds today now believe that the original fetal origins scientists might have put a little too much emphasis on those first nine months, and that, in truth, what is required is an integration of several theories of disease in addition to fetal origins. The genetic codes in our DNA from conception, as well as the choices we make and things we’re exposed to after birth, certainly play a large role in our health too.
The low birth weight babies of Barker’s study were most likely provided with poor nutrition during gestation. But very possibly, their nutrition did not improve throughout childhood or adulthood, as they were still living in the poorest of areas. There is a tremendous amount of evidence to prove that what we eat now greatly influences our heart health.
As for the children of mothers who had undergone weight-loss surgery, it could be that the dietary changes their mothers made subsequent to surgery caused them to be thinner than their older siblings born prior to surgery. Perhaps the bad nutritional habits were already ingrained in the pre-surgery children, but the younger ones followed the same “new” portion control and healthier eating habits that were necessary for mom to adhere to after her surgery.
And then there’s Dr. Francis Pottenger. While his research focused on cats, we can’t ignore what he proved about nutrition. His experiment used 900 cats divided randomly into five groups. Two of these groups were fed unprocessed milk and meat…essentially, a completely raw food diet. The other three groups were fed varying combinations of such cooked and processed foods as pasteurized, evaporated, and condensed milk and cooked meat.
He studied them across four generations, and in the first two groups, all four generations lived typical lifespans and led healthy lives. The three groups fed processed foods did not fare so well. In the first generation, those cats developed illnesses and diseases late in their lives. The second generation developed the illnesses and diseases earlier — toward the middle of their lifespans. The third generation came down with the illnesses and diseases near the beginnings of their lives and many did not live for even six months. There was no fourth generation, as they either died before birth or their third generation parents were sterile.
As our diets have relied more and more on heavily processed and cooked foods of low nutritive value, we should remember the lessons of fetal origins and Pottenger’s cats. Clearly, what we are putting into our bodies not only harms us now, but also harms our children…unto the third and fourth generation, biblically speaking.