Couples planning to start a family should adjust their lifestyles years before conception for the sake of their children, a medical review has found.
The diet and health of both parents can have major implications for the growth, development and long-term health of the next generation, according to researchers.
Yet many women are overweight and fail to get adequate nutrition, putting their children at risk of acute illnesses from diabetes to cancer in later life.
Judith Stephenson, a University College London professor who led the review, said failure to educate would-be parents prior to conception was a missed opportunity.
‘The pre-conception period is a critical time when parental health – including weight, metabolism, and diet – can influence the risk of future chronic disease in children,’ she said.
‘The effects of being overweight are really significant for outcomes both during the pregnancy and for the future health of the child. This isn’t about provoking fear or blaming individuals.
‘But there are things men and women can do before conception that will bring benefits, not just for the pregnancy, but for that child’s enduring health.’
The researchers said the ‘pre-conception period’ should be expanded to years rather than months, and children should be taught about the potential toll junk food could take on their future families. The series of papers, published in the Lancet medical journal, looked at a number of global studies involving millions of would-be parents. Researchers from UCL and the University of Southampton assessed various health risks prior to and during pregnancy.
They found that even with well-established risks – such as a lack of folic acid linked to birth defects including spina bifida – preventative action was often not taken. Ninety-six % of British women aged 18 to 42 were found to be lacking in iron and folic acid, they suggest.
Studies have shown that babies born to obese women have a greater risk of complications during birth and are also more likely to be premature. Obesity and malnutrition can also potentially cause genetic, cellular, metabolic and physiological changes during the development of the unborn baby.
Obesity in men is associated with poor sperm quality, which could also increase the risk of chronic disease in later life.
Dr Mary Barker, of the University of Southampton, said schools, GP practices, reproductive health clinics and even supermarkets should encourage those who want families to take better care of themselves.
‘We can improve the health of generations to come by changing the way our society supports preparation for parenthood,’ she said. ‘We need to start a social movement around preconception health. We do not have to have rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
‘If we are clever about understanding people’s motivations for change, we can improve the health of the next generation and the next.’
Twenty-seven % of British adults are obese.