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Is Junk Food Causing Addiction in your Family? By Wisly Juganda

At 8 PM on the weekend of her daughter’s 17th birthday, Susan received a call no parent should ever have to receive. The voice on the phone informed her that her daughter was in the ER due to a cocaine overdose. Susan had heard of mothers doing drugs while pregnant, setting up their unborn children to substance abuse. But she’d never done any illegal drugs, nor had anyone else in her family. She had no idea what could have caused her daughter to take cocaine.

If you, too, are struggling with substance abuse in your family, a new study could have one surprising answer to this. A group of researchers led by Dr. Daria Peleg-Rabstein has identified an unlikely predictor of drug use: a mother’s diet during pregnancy. We hear the usual facts about pregnancy: eat vegetables, don’t smoke, and, as Susan had heard, don’t do drugs. This study , however, suggests something else: high-fat diet during pregnancy dramatically increase the chances that the baby will be prone to taking drugs and fatty foods.

The researchers raised a group of mice on high-fat diet during pregnancy and studied their offspring. Unsurprisingly, they found that the babies had a slower fat metabolism and a stronger preference towards fatty foods over regular food in adulthood.

What they found shocking was that these babies had a higher preference to alcohol over water and for cocaine, as well as abnormally faster movement after taking amphetamine compared to those born from normal mothers.

This surprising link between high-fat foods and drug use is due to dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is released when you experience reward. Dopamine motivates you to seek out more and more rewards such as fatty foods and drugs, leading to addiction.

Although this study was conducted on mice, several large-scale surveys found the same relationship between maternal high-fat diet and obesity in their children, meaning that the results possibly apply to us as well. Aside from confirming this effect in humans, researchers look to conducting further research on other effects of high-fat diet during pregnancy on children, focusing on compulsive eating and obesity in hopes of finding more treatments to obesity.

The study’s result has far-reaching implications on the issues of drug addiction and obesity that plague today’s society - while it is not surprising that a maternal high-fat diet contributes to obesity, its connection to drug addiction is less intuitive. The higher preference for drug-seeking and enhanced effects of drugs combined increase risk of developing addiction. It is unfortunate that in recent times, highly-processed junk foods have become cheaper and more accessible than healthy produce, leaving many mothers, like Susan, with no choice but to turn to high-fat foods to feed both themselves and their future child. Better governmental support systems (such as food access) for pregnant women should be in place for the benefit of future generations.

Adapted from Adapted from “Enhanced sensitivity to drugs of abuse and palatable foods following maternal overnutrition” by Peleg-Raibstein, et.al.

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). doi:10.1038/tp.2016.176

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