Many mothers-to-be fret over their nutrition during pregnancy—taking prenatal vitamins and eating the right kinds of foods to ensure their little ones will have healthy starts. These mothers are intuitively on to something, perhaps more than they know. A research field called epigenetics tells us that a mother’s nutrition can actually turn on or off genes in their babies.

According to WebMD, Kjersti Aagaard, MD, PhD, and assistant professor of maternal and fetal medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine, the first nine months in the womb are ”programming for health.” In fact, a study published in Science Daily, said a mother’s nutrition during her pregnancy and throughout her lifetime, can affect how her child’s genes function. Dr. Mihai Niculescu from the Nutrition Research Institute stated that, “ In addition to inheriting the DNA sequence of the parents…the offspring may also be inheriting the chemical tags added to DNA that allow genes to be switched on or off.”

Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) International Nutrition Group, based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the MRC, conducted a study in rural Gambia that had similar findings. By measuring the concentrations of nutrients in the mothers’ blood who participated, and later analyzing blood and hair follicle samples from their 2-8 month old infants, they found that a mother’s diet before conception had a significant effect on the properties of her child’s DNA.

An article published on ,by Jena Pincott, author of the Surprising Science of Pregnancy explained the process by which a mother’s nutrition affects the genes of her offspring. “The foods we eat can contain organic compounds called methyl groups that attach themselves to an unborn baby’s genes and changes their behavior, especially early in development,” said Pincott. “Adding methyl groups to your diet [healthily] turns gene expressions down (methylate) and removing them turns it up (demethylate), like turning the volume higher or lower, on or off.”

Actually, that is what happened when scientists at Duke University and Baylor College of Medicine conducted an experiment with mice. The two mice observed were as genetically similar as identical twins, however one was obese with yellowish colored fur while the other was smaller with brown fur, reported The only difference is that two weeks before conception and throughout pregnancy, the mother of the brown mouse ate food with chemicals that donate methyl groups to genes. The methyls attached to the genes that would typically promote yellowish pigmentation and obesity, which are also predisposed to diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

The results were amazing. According to Pincott, “Here was an animal whose predisposition to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and yellow fur was overcome by maternal diet alone.” So which foods are rich in methyl groups? Foods like meats, liver, shellfish, milk ( for vitamin B12), leafy veggies, sunflower seeds, baker’s yeast ( for folic acid), egg yolk, liver, soy ( for vitamin B6 and choline), and beets, wheat, spinach, and shellfish ( for betaine), for example.

Dr. Mihai Niculescu from the Nutrition Research Institute summarized, “I think that we, as parents have to understand better that our responsibilities to our children are not only of a social, economic, or educational nurture, but that our own biological statues can contribute to the fate of our children, and this effect can be long-lasting,” she said.
“My hope is that, along with many other scientists, we will reveal this tight biological relationship between us as parents and our children, and how we can improve the lives of our children using our own biological machinery.”

If you feel poor nutrition has played a role in your health—it’s not too late. I encourage you to check out my previous blog posts. You may want to start with Don’t Feel Well, Check Your Gut because 80% of your immunity is located there. That post also discusses nutrigenomics and how you can use nutrition to turn on the genes that will improve your health. Also, try these plant-based DNA Activators that I use to maintain the health of my genes because wellness starts on the inside.