Food and Behaviour Research

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Hungry in the womb: what are the consequences? Lessons from the Dutch famine

Roseboom TJ, Painter RC, van Abeelen AF, Veenendaal MV, de Rooij SR. (2011) Maturitas.  70(2) 141-5. Epub 2011 Jul 28. 

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An increasing body of evidence suggests that poor nutrition at the very beginning of life - even before birth - leads to large and long term negative consequences for both mental and physical health.

This paper reviews the evidence from studies on the Dutch famine, which investigated the effects of prenatal undernutrition on later health. The effects of famine appeared to depend on its timing during gestation, and the organs and tissues undergoing critical periods of development at that time.

Early gestation appeared to be the most vulnerable period. People who were conceived during the famine were at increased risk of schizophrenia and depression, they had a more atherogenic plasma lipid profile, were more responsive to stress and had a doubled rate of coronary heart disease. Also, they performed worse on cognitive tasks which may be a sign of accelerated ageing. People exposed during any period of gestation had more type 2 diabetes.

Future investigation will expand on the finding that the effects of prenatal famine exposure may reach down across generations, possibly through epigenetic mechanisms.

Recent evidence suggests that similar effects of prenatal undernutrition are found in Africa, where many are undernourished. Hunger is a major problem worldwide with one in seven inhabitants of this planet suffering from lack of food. Adequately feeding women before and during pregnancy may be a promising strategy in preventing chronic diseases worldwide.