New insights into ending chronic disease.

WHAT IS NUTRITION IN THE WOMB?

Nutrition in the womb is the process that delivers to the fetus what it needs to grow and develop into a healthy baby. A fetus receives its nutrition from two sources. The first source of nutrients is from the mother’s diet before and during pregnancy. Most people understand this.

The fetus receives the nutrition it needs to grow not only from what the mother eats during pregnancy but from the mothers own body.

The least known and probably more important source of nutrients is the mother’s body. All bodies undergo a turnover process. Turnover is the ever-changing state of breakdown and renewal of muscle, fat and bone which releases protein, fat and calcium into the bloodstream. In a pregnant woman these nutrients are important sources of food for a growing baby. Mothers who have good turnover rates for themselves are able to provide well for their babies. A mother acquires her body composition and turnover throughout her whole lifetime as a fetus, child, girl, adolescent and adult. The mother’s turnover and her diet work in harmony to provide nutrition in the womb through the placenta.

The placenta, which is part of the baby that attaches it to the womb, captures nutrients from the mother’s blood and transports them to the baby. The growth of the placenta and the food it supplies are the key to health for a lifetime. The placenta has three functions. It is the gate between mother and baby, transferring food from the mother and waste from the baby; it makes hormones that signal to the mother what the baby needs; and it protects the baby from the mother’s immune system, which could attack the baby because it is "foreign" to the mother’s body because half of its genes come from the father. The development of the placenta begins when the embryo implants into the lining of the mother’s womb, on the eighth day after conception. The organ becomes fully functional in the tenth week of pregnancy. At birth its surface is oval in shape. It seems that the tissue along the length of the surface has different functions to tissue along the breadth.

A baby that is undernourished may try to compensate by expanding the surface of its placenta to extract more nutrients from the mother. This is dangerous because the baby and the placenta have to share the available food between them. A larger placenta will require a larger share. The shape and size of the placental surface predict heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers in later life. The predictions vary with the mother’s nutritional state, as she is the ultimate source of food. The predictions also differ in boys and girls. Boys invest less than girls in placental growth but more readily expand the placental surface if they become undernourished.

WHY IS NUTRITION IN THE WOMB IMPORTANT?

Coronary heart disease was rare one hundred years ago. Now it is the most common cause of death in the world. Diet, smoking, and lifestyles are blamed; but still we do not know why one person gets heart disease while another does not.

Young women who eat unvaried and monotonous diets are putting the future health of their children and grandchildren at risk.

New research has shown that poor nutrition in the womb changes the structure and function of the body for life, and makes people vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis and cancer. People who were born at term but had low birth weight as full term babies have less healthy lives.

We are all aware that poor diets are bad for us. What is now known is that the diets of girls and young women determine the health of the next generation.

WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT?

The diets of mothers today are determining the health of future generations. The Barker Foundation is committed to spreading this message.

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

Nutrition in the Womb courses have been held in Oregon, bringing the science of nutrition in the womb, and its implications for public health, to the attention of public health professionals and nutritional scientists.

  • The Foundation makes information explaining the science of nutrition in the womb.

PUBLIC HEALTH

The Foundation is helping to open up a continuing dialogue with state officials, public health professionals, educators and the nonprofit community to discuss ways of changing the diets of girls and young women in Oregon.

SCIENCE

The Foundation is committed to supporting research in specific areas.

  • FOOD CHOICE

    A collaborative project, studying how and why women make food choices for themselves and their families. It is a partnership between Dr Sarah Hampson, from the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, and Dr Mary Barker, from the University of Southampton, UK.

  • WOMEN IN OREGON

    The Klamath Falls Study is the first phase of the Oregon Women’s Study, focused on determining how the diets of women during pregnancy influence placental growth and function. 150 women of child bearing age have been recruited by the OHSU Heart Research Center.

  • BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

    Intelligence, the ability to benefit from education, are largely determined before the age of three years. The Barker Foundation supports the Thailand longitudinal study of how growth in the womb, and growth, nutrition and health between birth and three years of age, influence the development of intelligence.