Search icon


22nd Jul 2017

High fat diet during pregnancy linked to mental health disorders

Important findings for the mental health of future generations.

Alison Bough

high fat diet pregnancy nutrition

A new study has linked a high fat diet during pregnancy to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression in children.

high fat diet pregnancy nutrition

Brand new research has shown that a high-fat diet not only creates health problems for mamas-to-be, but an animal model also suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of offspring and has a long-term impact on behaviour.

Dr Elinor Sullivan, an assistant professor in neuroscience at Oregon National Primate Research Centre, tested the effect of a mother’s high-fat diet on nonhuman primates, tightly controlling their diet in a way that would be impossible in humans. The study revealed behavioural changes in the offspring and introducing a healthy diet to the offspring at an early age failed to reverse the effect.

Dr Sullivan says the findings may link an unhealthy diet during pregnancy to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression in children:

“Given the high level of dietary fat consumption and maternal obesity in developed nations, these findings have important implications for the mental health of future generations.

It’s not about blaming the mother. It’s about educating pregnant women about the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy and empowering them and their families to make healthy choices by providing support. We also need to craft public policies that promote healthy lifestyles and diets.”

high fat diet pregnancy nutrition

Dr Joel Nigg, a professor of psychiatry, paediatrics, and behavioural neuroscience, was not involved in the research but says the results of the study are dramatic and suggest that diet is at least as important as genetic predisposition to disorders such as anxiety or depression:

“I think it’s quite dramatic. A lot of people are going to be astonished to see that the maternal diet has this big of an effect on the behaviour of the offspring. We’ve always looked at the link between obesity and physical diseases like heart disease, but this is really the clearest demonstration that it’s also affecting the brain.”

Sullivan says she believes believe the findings provide evidence that mobilising public resources to provide healthy food and pre- and post-natal care to families of all socioeconomic classes could reduce mental health disorders in future generations:

“My hope is that increased public awareness about the origins of neuropsychiatric disorders can improve our identification and management of these conditions, both at an individual and societal level.”