A National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study is reporting that proper maternal folate levels during fetal development may protect children from obesity, particularly those born to overweight women. The study, “Association Between Maternal Prepregnancy Body Mass Index and Plasma Folate Concentrations With Child Metabolic Health,” was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
“Maternal nutrition during pregnancy can have long-lasting effects on child health, as well as the health of a mother after pregnancy,”the study’s principal investigator, Xiaobin Wang, MD, MPH, ScD, from Johns Hopkins University, said in a news release. “Our results suggest that adequate maternal folate may mitigate the effect of a mother’s obesity on her child’s health.”
Previous reports link maternal obesity with low folate concentrations and weight problems in their children.
Folate (a B vitamin known as folic acid in supplements) lessens the risk of fetus malformations in the brain, spine and spinal cord (called neural tube defects). To reduce a child’s risk, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises women of childbearing age to take a daily dose of 400 micrograms of folic acid.
To test the hypothesis that maternal folate concentrations affect a child’s metabolic health, and that sufficient maternal folate concentrations mitigate pre-pregnancy obesity-induced child metabolic risk, researchers examined 1,517 pairs of women with a child newly born from 1998 to 2012, and followed them prospectively for up to nine years.
Folate levels were measured from plasma samples collected two to three days after delivery.
The team found an “L-shaped” association between maternal levels of folate and child obesity, in which lowest levels of folate correlated with the highest risk of child obesity. When folate levels were about 20 nanomoles per liter (nm/L) (normal range), further increases did not confer extra benefits, representing a threshold effect but one higher than the typical cut-off for establishing folate deficiency (less than 10 nm/L).
Researchers also found that, compared to normal-weight mothers, obese women tended to have lower levels of folate. Still, results showed that children of obese mothers with proper levels of folate (at least 20 nm/L) had a 43 percent lower risk of obesity when compared to those born to obese women with lower folate levels (less than 20 nm/L).
The investigators suggested that establishing an “optimal” — instead of a “minimal” — folate concentration may offer benefits for women who are planning to get pregnant, particularly obese women.
“Folate is well-known for preventing brain and spinal cord defects in a developing fetus, but its effects on metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and obesity, is less understood,” said Cuilin Zhang, MD, PhD, NICHD senior investigator and a study co-author. “This study uncovers what may be an additional benefit of folate and identifies a possible strategy for reducing childhood obesity.”