Beyond avoiding alcohol, caffeine, fish, and soft cheeses, many women allow themselves some extra indulgences during pregnancy. New research from the Oregon National Primate Research Center, presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in San Diego, may have expectant and nursing mothers re-thinking the fat content of their diets and how it will permanently affect their children’s behavior and level of anxiety, not just their long-term health.
According to Live Science, researchers created a high-fat diet based on what the typical American ingests for pregnant monkeys in the experimental group. “Even if we take the offspring, after they’re weaned from their mothers, and put them back onto a normal, healthy diet, their susceptibility to stress and anxiety still remains,” said researcher Kevin Grove. “This really appears to be a permanent issue that occurs in utero.”
When presented with what could be a stressful situation, fear was demonstrated in 78 percent of the monkeys whose mothers had been given the typical American diet, but only 11 percent of monkeys in the control group.
The experimental situations included an unknown human approaching the monkeys’ enclosure or unknown toys being placed with the monkeys. Both toy snakes and Mr. Potato Head were used for this experiment. Experimenters report that the large eyes of Mr. Potato Head can be mildly stressful for any monkey. While the between group differences are significant, gender differences are also very interesting. The male monkeys whose mothers consumed more than a third of their calories from fat demonstrated aggressive behavior when stressed, including threatening approaching strangers. Females demonstrated more avoidance of the strange toys.
Diet, rather than obesity, differentiated the emotional reactions. Researchers reported that results were consistent regardless of the monkeys’ mothers’ body fat content. Upon further examination, the researchers found disruptions in serotonin signaling of the high-fat diet offspring. Serotonin contributes to a feeling of well-being in both primates and humans.