Healthy Beginnings: Managing Weight In-Utero

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychology shows what may have been intuitively understood before, that children acquire their food preferences in-utero. And just last week, Time magazine published an article that suggests that obesity in adults can be traced back to the health and weight of their mothers while pregnant. Finally, some science to back what many nutritionists have understood for quite some time: mom’s habit’s matter from the get go.

The idea that obesity begins in the womb is still being studied in Universities such as Harvard and Columbia with no clear understanding of what this obesity signal is that is being passed from mother to child. But perhaps it is this: developmentally, there are three stages in the life cycle that a child accumulates fat cells: in-utero, the first year of life and in pre-pubescence. Once we have created these fat cells, they do no go away, rather they shrink or expand in accordance with our weight. These fat cells have memories that prompt us to eat in order keep them plumped up, working off a prehistoric mechanism of storing fat for times of starvation. These fat cells are looking for our survival, not yet having evolved to the understanding that unlike our prehistoric forbearers, we are not lacking for food. Quite the opposite.

Based on this, if an obese woman conceives and continues to gain weight because she is eating less than nutritious foods, it stands to reason that the child within her will be affected by her eating habits and weight gain. If she is gaining beyond the 25 to 35 pounds that are recommended, then that child may be accumulating fat cells inside the womb. This does not mandate that the child come out much larger than the average baby, but the fat cells may still be there, waiting to be fed.

Which brings us to the next study, that food preferences are created in the womb. This is a fascinating study because eating habits can directly impact the next two times in the life cycle that a child will accumulate fat cells and how many.

The First Year of Life

The first year of life is a nutritionally important time in a child’s development. Breast-feeding has been shown to have a vast advantage over bottle-feeding in regards to the child’s overall nutrition, immune system, and future weight. In the sixth month or so, more solid foods are introduced such as cereals, fruits and vegetables. Here, a child’s palate will be influential in their preferences, perhaps tending towards sweeter foods such as fruits and less towards vegetables. Eating too many fruits and not enough vegetables can have an affect on insulin production and nudge the fat cells along. But our in-utero food preferences combined with obesity in pregnancy converges in pre-pubescence and it is here that the greatest potential for damage occurs.


Pre-pubescence begins around the age of 9. By then many food preferences and habits have been established. If the study published in the Journal of Psychology is true, then it can be said that if mom ate ice cream, chips and other low nutrient but highly salient foods during pregnancy, then those preferences have been passed on to the child. Additionally, a mother with a sweet tooth or a potato chip preference might still keep these foods readily available around the home, reinforcing these food choices. If pre-pubescence is the third and last time in the life cycle that we accumulate fat cells, then healthy and balanced eating habits are extremely important in determining a child’s future struggle with weight. If they are instead eating high calorie and low nutrient foods, then their chances of making too many fat cells increases and their battle of the bulge begins then. And while obesity and a tendency towards weight gain can be overcome later in life despite in-utero nutrition, it can be a very difficult and emotionally challenging journey.

Anyone that has struggled with weight knows how challenging life can be as a result. It is a life long struggle that can be depressing, distracting and can erode self-confidence. Optimally, obesity should be prevented. Life long dieting is less than an optimal way to live but that is typically the fate of the over weight, and usually with little lasting success. Prevention begins at inception. We now see that a mother’s habits during pregnancy matter and have potentially life long consequences. Establishing a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight is the first gift you will give your child and one that will affect every facet of their life.

A Healthy Pregnancy

If you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, here are a few tips to clean up your diet and help you begin the journey of delivering a healthy life to your child.

  • Eliminate sugar: Sugar not only affects insulin levels which can contribute to obesity, but it also has a profound affect on serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter that allows us to feel calm and happy, another advantage later in life. In order to have balanced serotonin levels, you want to get your sugar from complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, beans, whole grains and some fruit. Click here for tips on how to eliminate sugar from your diet.
  • Eat high quality lean protein: Try to get grass fed or hormone and antibiotic free chicken, turkey and beef. When possible, enjoy wild Alaskan salmon, a great source of Omega 3 essential fatty acids. Omega 3’s have been shown to help prevent post partum depression.
  • Switch to whole grains: Refined grains such as pasta, white bread and white rice, can also deplete nutrients in the body and contribute to erratic insulin levels. Try to switch to 7-grain bread, brown rice and brown rice pasta, available in health food stores
  • Get Seven Servings of Vegetables and Fruit: The backbone of a healthy lifestyle begins with vegetables and fruits. Loaded in vitamins, mineral and antioxidants, they are necessary components of a balanced diet. Additionally, the fiber in these foods helps to mitigate insulin levels, helping to prevent obesity and reduce sugar imbalances. A great way to get loads of vegetables into your diet is with soups. See my Turkey Minestrone recipe for an example of a deliciously healthy soup.
  • Exercise: This can reduce insulin resistance in as little as two weeks while contributing to a healthy weight. Exercise also boosts serotonin and endorphin levels helping to make us feel calm and happy. In fact, studies have shown that exercise is as effective in managing depression as antidepressants! This will be an invaluable tool during and after pregnancy.

If you are considering pregnancy and are carrying extra pounds, then consider losing them before you conceive. Getting in the habit of eating well is easier before pregnancy than during, when hormones are coursing through the body making it harder to control cravings. Start by eliminating sugar and then consider exercise. These two habits will have the greatest impact on weight loss. Once those habits are in place, beginning refining your health plan by adding vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

The first gift you give your child is the gift of life. Start now in helping to make that life one full of health, vitality and vibrancy.