Did you know that your birth weight can predict whether you will develop heart disease, diabetes or certain other chronic diseases later in life? Wacky, but true.
Thanks to research into the Developmental Origins of Health & Disease (DOHaD) over the past 20 years, we know that babies born at the lower end of the normal birth weight range experience greater rates of chronic disease throughout life. Not only that, but babies born at five pounds have greater rates of adult heart disease and diabetes than babies born at six pounds, and those six pound babies have higher rates of disease than babies born at seven pounds. Babies born at nine pounds have the lowest rates of later chronic disease. The risk begins to climb again for babies born at the higher birth weights.
So how does this happen?
A baby’s birth weight is an indication of how she grew in the womb. The rate of a baby’s growth is set very early in development based on his environment, including his mother’s body size, amounts of fat and muscle, and the social stresses, like poverty and racism, she is exposed to. Birth weight is also affected by the size and shape of the placenta a woman develops. The placenta is the main transport system between the mother and her developing baby.
Babies in the womb are not completely reliant on the nutrition a woman receives during her pregnancy. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be too dangerous for a developing baby to be solely dependent on the food her mother ate on any given day. They draw on nutritional reserves the mother has built up within her body over her lifetime. So women who have not received nutritious foods have fewer reserves from which to draw.
Although a mother’s diet during her pregnancy is not closely linked with her baby’s birth weight, it does affect the baby’s vulnerabilities for later chronic disease. Humans are plastic, or malleable, during their development in the womb and adverse influences, such as poor nutrition or exposure to social stress, can permanently alter body structure and function. So babies that are exposed to these problems can be more likely to have chronic diseases later in life.
Resources in the womb are always limited to some degree. A developing baby prioritizes certain organs and systems over others. The brain is always the first priority, followed by the heart. Organs like the kidneys and the lungs, whose functions are provided by the mother until birth, are last on the list to receive resources. So a developing baby facing limited resources from the mothers nutrition will make trade-offs in development and protect the growth of the brain at the expense of these organs. Hence the association between low birth weight, certain lung problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Therefore, it is now clear that a host of chronic diseases, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes, lay their foundations before we are even born. These roots are formed in response to poor nutrition during growth in the womb. A baby that is malnourished in the womb is born vulnerable– with a propensity for disease that is very difficult to erase. The implications are clear: a good start is the foundation for a lifetime of health.
Chronic diseases are not an inevitable fact of aging. These diseases could be prevented if we as a society prioritized easy access to nutrition for all, with a focus on the health and nutrition of adolescent girls and young women. Not only would this reverse the disturbing trend of decreasing health in the U.S. and many other western nations, but it could prevent the rise of these chronic diseases in developing nations and lead to generations who will have better health and well-being throughout their lives.
Incorporate DOHaD into your work
Do you already work or volunteer with with a group that could incorporate concepts of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) into its programs or policies? Do you work in health care, for a community non-profit, in education, or government? These are a few of the more obvious areas where DOHaD principles could be woven into your work. However, social stress and nutrition touch almost every aspect of life. Think of ways you could incorporate this information into your work and volunteer opportunities.
Talk to your mom
Don't know how much you weighed at birth? This is a great chance to talk to your mom about what life was like for her while she was pregnant with you. Is grandma still around? Ask her too. It's a wonderful opportunity for some family bonding and learning more about your family history. How does what you eat now compare to what your mom or grandma ate while pregnant?
Support social programs that increase access to nutritious foods
National programs like WIC (Women, Infants and Children), plus lots of regional and local programs work to ensure equitable access to fresh nutritious foods for all. Find a local organization and volunteer. Learn about proposed legislation that could affect financing for these groups and write a letter to your elected official in support of the program. Vote for individuals who take a strong stance on increasing nutrition. Do you work for an organization that can take a stand on social issues, proposed legislation or candidates running for elected office? Schedule a meeting with a candidate or elected official for your organization to express its support for increasing access to nutritious foods for all. Voices banding together will turn the tide of chronic disease.