You are what your grandmother ate

Parents' own prenatal environment has a detectable impact on their children's weight, new research indicates.

Mothers who are malnourished in utero tend to produce smaller babies, while a father's malnourishment in utero results in his offspring being smaller by the time they are two.

The findings come from an experiment of nature in rural Gambia, which ruled out confounding socioeconomic factors that could influence babies’ growth across generations.

"Nutritional interventions, such as dietary supplementation programs in poor populations, are frequently undermined by an apparent absence of immediate impact," says Dr Andrew Prentice, a  professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"This study shows that it may take several generations to eliminate growth failure and stunting because of these intergenerational influences."

Dr Prentice and his team of researchers have exploited the experiment in rural Gambia, where a single annual rainy season creates a harvest and a hungry season.

Mothers for whom the latter part of pregnancy is in the hungry season tend to have smaller babies.

The knowledge that mothers and fathers born in the hungry season are nutritionally stressed in utero has allowed researchers to study how parents' own fetal nutrition affects the growth of their offspring.