Your Baby‘s Brain “Knows” What You Eat! Maternal Overnutrition,Drug use and Obesity

Obesity and substance abuse are increasingly worrying problems in our society. In particular, the obesity rate in America in 2018 is 32.2% [1].

This is the situation for the current generation. Maybe it is nothing new to you.

But the question is: what kind of behaviors are we breeding in the next generation?

A study by Peleg-Raibstein and colleagues shows that maternal overnutrition may breed obesity in the next generation. In the study, a group of female mice was given a high-fat diet before mating, during pregnancy, and during lactation [2].

Offspring of these mice consumed more palatable food than other mice. Therefore, maternal overnutrition may lead to overeating, which is a risk factor for obesity [2] .

More unexpectedly, even when all offspring were given regular food, those with maternal overnutrition had more body fat from birth to adulthood [2].

This suggests that, whether or not exposed to palatable food, children with maternal overnutrition are more prone to obesity.

Perhaps it’s not mind-blowing to know that maternal overnutrition can cause obesity in kids. However, obesity is not the only problem.

In the study, mice with maternal overnutrition also showed more cocaine-seeking behavior and consumed more alcohol than other mice [2].

This means that, once exposed to drugs, persons with maternal overnutrition may take more of them and therefore, become more prone to drug abuse.


Various types of rewards, including food, alcohol and other drugs, share the same system in the brain. Peleg-Raibstein found that maternal overnutrition sensitizes offspring’s reward system as a whole [2]. This makes mice want more rewards of all kinds, and work harder to get them.

In the case of humans, this can mean running very fast to cafeteria to get the donut, or something worse, like spending all your income on drugs.

Why should I care? You may be thinking that because your children are well protected from drugs. However, even if they never use drug recreationally, they may have to use drugs like opioids for medical reasons in the future.

This is not a rare occurrence. The national opioid prescription rate in 2017 is 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people [3]. Opioids for medication also have reward value, and users with sensitized reward system may be more prone to abusing such drugs.

Up to this point, maternal overnutrition may look like the root of the issue. However, prospective mothers are by no means “scapegoats”.

Research finds that family, rather than the individual, is usually the basic unit of food choice [4]. The food choice of a family is also linked to other social factors, namely socio-economic status [4].

Therefore, Peleg-Raibstein’s findings beg the following questions:

What are the wider environmental factors that affect food choice within families? If certain environmental factors breed problems in the next generation, what shall we ask of the society to tackle them?

Anyway, if we want to make things better for our children, there is at least something to do.

And that would be eating healthily and responding to rewards reasonably ourselves.


[1] Obesity in the United States. (2019, April 04). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obesity_in_the_United_States

[2] Peleg-Raibstein, D., Sarker, G., Litwan, K., Krämer, S. D., Ametamey, S. M., Schibli, R., & Wolfrum, C. (2016). Enhanced sensitivity to drugs of abuse and palatable foods following maternal overnutrition. Translational Psychiatry, 6(10), e911.

[3] Opioid Overdose. (2018, October 03). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/maps/rxrate-maps.html

[4] Visser, S. S., Hutter, I., & Haisma, H. (2016). Building a framework for theory-based ethnographies for studying intergenerational family food practices. Appetite, 97, 49–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.11.019

Created by: Xiangti Guo NS&B227


Created with images by kalhh - "bathroom scale horizontal weight" • John Looy - "untitled image" • jarmoluk - "baby handle tiny" • John-Mark Smith - "untitled image"

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