Vulnerability to alcohol and drug abuse may begin in the womb and be linked to how much fatty and sugary foods a mother eats during pregnancy, according to findings from animal lab experiments presented at the American Psychology Association's (APA) 121st Annual Convention.
"The majority of women in the U.S. at child-bearing age are overweight, and this is most likely due to overeating the tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods you find everywhere in our society. The rise in prenatal and childhood obesity and the rise in number of youths abusing alcohol and drugs merits looking into all the possible roots of these growing problems," said Nicole Avena, PhD, a research neuroscientist with the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute.
According to the findings, the offspring of rats that ate high-fat or high-sugar diets while pregnant weighed more as adults and drank more alcohol, and those on high-sugar diets also had stronger responses to commonly abused drugs such as amphetamines.
Triglyceride levels higher
The pregnant rats’ high-fat diet contained 50 percent fat, 25 percent carbohydrate and 25 percent protein, whereas the control diet reflected a recommended human diet, with 25 percent fat, 50 percent carbohydrate and 25 percent protein, Avena said. The offspring of rats that had high-fat diets while pregnant drank significantly more alcohol in adulthood than the offspring of rats with the regular chow diet. The offspring of rats on the high-fat diet while pregnant also had significantly higher levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the bloodstream that can increase the risk of heart disease.
Pups nursed by rats with either high-sucrose or the high-fructose corn syrup diets while pregnant drank more alcohol compared to offspring born to the group that did not have sugar. Further, pups exposed to either of the sugar-rich diets before birth or during nursing became hyperactive when given low doses of amphetamine, suggesting sensitivity to the drug. These animals also weighed significantly more at the end of the study than those born to the rats that ate regular chow.
"Our findings suggest that even while [rats are] still in the womb, exposure to high-fat and sugar-rich diets can, in addition to increasing body weight, lead to a predisposition to drink alcohol and a sensitivity to drugs," Avena said.