Adequate folate for pregnant women could protect their children from obesity

16 June 2016

New research has found that proper maternal folate levels during pregnancy may protect children from a future risk of obesity, especially those born to obese mothers.

The research was carried out at John Hopkins University in the US and lends further weight to the importance of folate during pregnancy. 

Folate is an essential B vitamin which is regularly supplemented in pregnant women to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the unborn baby.  

Principal investigator Dr. Xiaobin Wang says,“Maternal nutrition during pregnancy can have long-lasting effects on child health, as well as the health of a mother after pregnancy.  Our results suggest that adequate maternal folate may mitigate the effect of a mother’s obesity on her child’s health.”

The researchers analysed health records from more than 1,500 mother-child pairs in the Boston Birth Cohort, a predominately low-income, minority population with a high prevalence of maternal and child obesity.

To guage a mother’s folate level during pregnancy, the researchers measured folate from stored plasma samples that were collected two to three days after delivery.

The study team found a wide range of maternal folate levels, but observed an “L-shaped” relationship between maternal folate levels and child obesity. In other words, the lowest levels of folate correlated with the highest risk of child obesity.

Obese mothers in the study tended to have lower folate levels than normal weight mothers. However, when the researchers examined obese mothers only, they found that children of obese mothers with adequate folate levels (at least 20 nm/L) had a 43 percent lower risk of obesity compared to children of obese mothers with lower folate (less than 20 nm/L).

The children in the latter group had higher body mass index-for-age z-scores (BMI-z) — a measure of body fat in children.

According to the authors, establishing an “optimal” rather than “minimal” folate concentration may be beneficial for women planning a pregnancy, especially 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,” says Dr Cuilin Zhang, a 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.”

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health advises women to take folic acid supplementation (an 800 microgram tablet per day) at least one month before becoming pregnant through until 12 weeks pregnant in order to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the unborn baby.  View their advice here.

Read more about the study here.