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Children whose mothers eat high-fat diets during pregnancy and nursing are more likely to have an early onset of puberty and to be obese in adulthood, according to Auckland researchers.
Auckland University scientist Deborah Sloboda said today that rats born to mothers fed a high-fat diet had a higher amount of body fat, even if the young rats themselves ate an ordinary diet.
Dr Sloboda, a foetal physiologist at the university's Liggins Institute who has investigated prenatal origins of reproductive disorders and the onset of puberty in adolescent girls, presented her findings today at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting in San Francisco.
The young rats were fed either an ordinary diet, or a high-fat diet after being weaned from their mother's milk.
The adult rats whose mothers had had a high-fat diet study showed alterations in sex hormones, including increased levels of the ovarian hormone progesterone in females.
Liggins Institute researchers have previously shown that an early first menstrual period in humans - often used as a marker for early-onset puberty in girls - is a risk factor for obesity, insulin resistance, teenage depression and breast cancer in adulthood.
"Other research suggests that a combination of prenatal and postnatal influences in girls can affect the onset of menarche (menstruation)," Dr Sloboda said.
The rat-study researchers also evaluated the offspring as adults in regard to body fat composition and blood levels of sex hormones.
The onset of puberty was much earlier in all rats whose mothers had a high-fat diet, compared with the offspring of controls that ate an ordinary diet, the study showed.
"A high-fat diet after birth did not make the early-onset puberty any earlier, Dr Sloboda said in a statement.
"This might suggest that the fetal environment in high-fat fed mothers plays a greater role in determining pubertal onset than childhood nutrition," she said.