Moms who eat high-fat, sugary diets could make offspring vulnerable to alcohol and drug sensitivity

A predisposition to alcohol and drug abuse might start in the utero, according to findings presented at the American Psychological Association's (APA) 121st Annual Convention.

Rat studies showed that moms who eat fatty, sugary foods while pregnant could deliver babies that are more apt to be sensitive to drugs and alcohol later in life – suggesting that the same risks could hold true for human moms with poor eating habits.

Offspring show risky behaviors

Compared to rats whose mothers had eaten regular rodent chow, the offspring of moms who ate a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and fat ended up weighing more as adults and drinking more alcohol. They also showed greater sensitivity to drugs like amphetamine.

The mother rats on the "junk food" diet ate about 50 percent fat, 25 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent protein, while the control diet rodent moms ate 25 percent fat, 50 percent carbohydrates and 25 percent protein.

No differences were seen in how much water or food the offspring of each group consumed as adults, but alcohol preferences were clearly different. Rats from the junk food moms also had higher levels of triglycerides – a type of fat that can increase risk for heart disease.

Wiring the reward system

Previous research has shown that reward system wiring can happen in the womb, meaning that how mom eats during pregnancy can determine the strength or weakness or her offspring's impulse control tendencies.

"Our findings suggest that even while [rats are] still in the womb, exposure to high-fat and sugar-rich diets can, in addition to increasing body weight, lead to a predisposition to drink alcohol and a sensitivity to drugs," said Nicole Avenda, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist with the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Institute.

Since obesity rates are climbing right alongside the prevalence of substance abuse, Avenda said the connection is worth exploring.

"The majority of women in the U.S. at child-bearing age are overweight, and this is most likely due to overeating the tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods you find everywhere in our society," she said. "The rise in prenatal and childhood obesity and the rise in number of youth abusing alcohol and drugs merits looking into all the possible roots of these growing problems."

Source: American Psychological Association

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