You Are What Your Father Eats

A study led by McGill University researcher Sarah Kimmins, PhD, suggests that a father’s diet before conception may play an equally important role in the health of his offspring. It also raises concerns about the long-term effects of current Western diets and food insecurity.

The research focused on vitamin B9 (folate), which is found in a range of green leafy vegetables, cereals, fruits, and meats. It’s well known that to prevent miscarriages and birth defects, mothers need adequate amounts of folate in their diet. But the way that a father’s diet can influence the health and development of his offspring has received almost no attention.

Now research from the Kimmins group shows for the first time that the father’s folate levels may be just as important to the development and health of his offspring as those of the mother. Indeed, the study suggests that fathers should pay as much attention to their lifestyle and diet before they set out to conceive a child as mothers do.

“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast-food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” Kimmins says. “People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there’s food insecurity also may be particularly at risk of folate deficiency. And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by working with mice and comparing the offspring of fathers with insufficient folate in their diets with the offspring of fathers whose diets contained sufficient levels of the vitamin. They found that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds in the offspring compared with the offspring of mice whose fathers were fed a diet with sufficient folate.

“We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30% increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folate were insufficient,” says Romain Lambrot, a postdoctoral fellow in McGill’s department of animal science and one of the researchers who worked on the study. “We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both craniofacial and spinal deformities.”

The research shows that there are regions of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experience and particularly to diet. This information is, in turn, transferred to a so-called epigenomic map that influences development and also may influence metabolism and disease in the offspring in the long term. (The epigenome is like a switch, which is affected by environmental cues, and is involved in many diseases, including cancer and diabetes. It influences the way that genes are turned on or off and hence how heritable information gets passed along.)

Although it has been known for some time that there’s a massive erasure and reestablishment that takes place in the epigenome as the sperm develops, this study shows that, along with the developmental map, the sperm also carries a memory of the father’s environment and possibly even of his diet and lifestyle choices.

“Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink, and remember they’re caretakers of generations to come,” Kimmins says. “If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight, and how this information relates to the health of their children.”

Source: McGill University