Foundations of health are set before birth

Research shows obesity and unhealthy eating habits can begin in the womb.

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The British television presenter and lifestyle coach Amanda Hamilton shares her views on health and nutrition. What are the best gifts to give your children? An education? Wisdom? Humility? Certainty? How about a healthy waistline? New science has thrown light on the rise of obesity among children and may have pregnant mothers ditching the biscuit tin for good. What natural medicine has talked about for centuries - the inherited constitution passed down from parents to offspring - has now received confirmation from genetic studies.

The health of parents at conception and through pregnancy are now accepted by many as the foundations of a child's health. Most worryingly, some people believe it even determines the likelihood of your little darlings to be obese in later life. A straw poll among new mums in my morning coffee group proved what most of us already know. Many women view pregnancy as a great excuse to indulge in fatty foods since they "are going to get fat anyway". After all, what are a few extra pounds when the average weight gain rocks in at around 16kg?

According to research conducted by Rockefeller University scientists, a high-fat diet during pregnancy produces permanent changes in the offspring's brain that can lead to increased appetite and obesity early in life. The research reveals that "fetal programming", the effect of the mother's diet on her children, cannot be undone. Does a craving for a burger and fries really set your child up for a lifetime of dieting misery? According to this particular study, it does.

Sarah F Leibowitz, the director of behavioural neurobiology at Rockefeller, says: "Short-term exposure to a high-fat diet in utero produces permanent neurons in the fetal brain that later increase the appetite for fat." In other words, your child is more likely to crave fatty foods, thus leading to obesity in childhood and adulthood. The research team found that rat pups born to mothers who consumed a high-fat diet, even after the diet had been removed at birth, ate more, weighed more throughout life, and began puberty earlier than those born to mothers who ate a balanced diet for the same period.

It all comes down to the brain. The pups from the mothers fed high-fat diets had, in utero, a much larger number of neurons that produce appetite-stimulating orexigenic peptides - and, according to the Rockefeller research, they kept them throughout their lives. As if that wasn't enough, another good reason to stay clear of fatty foods during pregnancy is that many toxins are fat soluble and can be stored in our fatty tissues and cells for years.

During pregnancy, the cells of the developing baby are much more vulnerable to toxins than the cells of the adult body. This makes it more important during the reproductive phases to follow a low-toxin diet (or at least a diet that does not promote toxin formation) and to avoid toxin exposure. On a positive note, staying clear of fatty foods and increasing the ratio of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables can have a dramatic effect on the pregnancy outcome. Lifestyle measures that minimise stress and cutting out social toxins such as caffeine and cigarettes can also help. To give your child-to-be the greatest chance of a healthy start, an organic diet for both parents prior to conception is ideal, as well as luxurious levels of nutrients for the pregnant mum-to-be.

Amanda Hamilton's detox programme can be seen on The Spa of Embarrassing Illnesses on BBC Lifestyle.