Grandpa's diet may affect grandkids' disease risk

November 12, 2002 in Nutrition for Children and Teenagers, Nutrition for Older Adults, Nutrition Topics in the News

Grandpa's diet may affect grandkids' disease risk

We are what we eat, or so the saying goes, but new research suggests that we may be what our parents and grandparents ate as well. A new study from Sweden has found that nutrition during childhood--particularly among boys--may influence the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in later generations.

Some researchers have theorized that poverty during childhood or adolescence, which often goes hand-in-hand with inadequate nutrition, may have a life-long effect. According to this idea, poverty early in life "programs" the body to be accustomed to inadequate nutrition, not the high-calorie diet typical in many developed countries today.

Scientists from the University in Sweden set out to see whether the programming effect of nutrition could be passed down to later generations. They studied three generations born in 1890, 1905 and 1920 in a parish in northern Sweden. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this area was impoverished and harvests were often meager. Based on historical information, the researchers classified food availability in any given year as poor, moderate or good.

What a person's parents and grandparents ate appeared to have a significant impact on their risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People whose relatives had lived through a famine tended to have a lower risk of disease. For people whose fathers did not have enough food during the "slow-growth" period of childhood that occurs before puberty, their risk of cardiovascular disease was lower than normal. To a lesser extent, the same was true for people whose paternal grandmother had lived through a famine.

Similarly, having a paternal grandfather who had lived through a famine was associated with a lower risk of diabetes. But if a paternal grandfather had plenty of food during his slow-growth period, his grandchildren were about four times more likely to die with diabetes.

The investigators did not examine the possible causes of the connection between childhood nutrition and disease risk in later generations, but the scientists say that social influences may have an effect on genetic factors.

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