Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Over the centuries, the human civilization progressed from an era of limited wants and means to the modern times when food is available plenty with enormous choices thanks to the ingenuity and technological prowess that distinguished the mankind from other living creatures. While under nutrition and malnutrition marked the early phases of development of the planet, over nutrition is increasingly being blamed to day for a plethora of evils that plague populations in many regions of the world, especially those enjoying prosperity and comforts in some of the developed countries. It is not that every man, women and child that dot this planet are well fed, considering the vast population numbering billions who have no access or no means to get what they need for keeping their body and soul together. During fifties and sixties lot was said and written about calorie-protein malnutrition in India, both due to imbalances in distribution and ignorance of basic principles of human nutrition. Contributions from stalwarts like late Patwardhan, late V Subramanyan, C Gopalan, M Swaminathan, HAB Parpia and few others to the knowledge base of food and nutrition in India are well known.

The influence of the mother on the health of her off springs has always been a fascinating subject of study both by medical as well as the nutrition communities. Fundamentally a healthy mother ( pregnant women) gives birth to a healthy child. But deviation from the normal can have short term as well as long term implications. This is where there are lot of uncertainties and lack of a consensus does not help the prospective mothers with different schools having different interpretations of such variations. It is not very clear whether a particular diet will have advantage over another one and if so in what way this advantage will be manifested in the child deriving nutrition from such a mother having this special diet. Nonetheless the role of food in seeing through a normal conception and delivery is undisputed.

There are many cases when parents with small physical features having children with larger body frame and higher than average birth weight. This is often attributed to the diets regime adopted during the pregnancy period. Reverse also is true when large sized parents have under sized off springs with absolutely normal health. Does food have such a critical role to play in influencing the health of the child, at least during birth? There is universal agreement that the genetic make up of parents does have an important influence on the life span of the children they bear but the role of food is rather obscure. A critical look at the health of populations in many impoverished communities gives a clue to the development dynamics of the children borne to them. In spite of a mother looking famished, the child borne to them appears to be far more healthy and resilient, probably due to the ability of the child to satisfy its normal nutrition requirements from its mother's system while still in the womb. What if the mother is super healthy with an abundance of food during pregnancy? Will the child be normal or super healthy like its mother?

Animals provide many clues regarding the influence of food intake on their health and behavior and mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, rhesus monkeys, beagle dogs all have helped mankind to unravel the mysteries of life during the last one and half centuries. But in many cases animal models do not translate into real time results in humans due to many reasons but such animal models can always forewarn us regarding any possibility of aberrations that can happen under certain set of conditions. In a recent report on obesity it was stated that over abundance of food to the fetus through an over eating mother can change the eating behavior of the off spring during its entire life. Of course this was found in mice and no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding such a possibility in humans. The mother mouse when grown in an environment of abundant food over ate 40% more in weight and 56% more in terms of calories. It gave birth to off springs which ate still more as compared to its mother and this trend continued generation after generation. Probably natures conservation principle goes haywire when the fetus grows in an environment rich in sugars and fats. What is intriguing is that the off springs of obese mothers had lower basal metabolism in general channeling the excess food for storage in the form of fat. Modification of their appetite centers in the brain gives them urge to eat more and unrestricted food availability makes the situation ideal for unrestrained eating.

Imagine what will happen if this translates into reality in human beings. Over generations, the humans with bulging waist lines and enormous physical dimensions, looking more like aliens will predominate the planet. Already obesity accounts for more than 400 million people across the globe, more than half being in the American continent. What is critical is the health status of the child bearing populations between the age 20 and 40 years and if disciplined eating is practiced at least for some time before and during pregnancy, there will be hope that mother earth can be saved the burden of carrying more over weight but sickly population in the coming decades.


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