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London - Overweight mothers-to-be could be condemning their unborn children to decades of ill health.

Babies whose mothers were carrying extra pounds when pregnant are more likely to be fat and unhealthy as adults, researchers say.

While it is well known that overweight mothers-to-be risk having big babies who grow into overweight children, this study is one of the first to show the legacy can still be felt years later.

Not only does it affect weight but overall health, including blood pressure, cholesterol and blood-sugar levels. This could raise the risk of a host of illnesses, from strokes to diabetes and heart attacks.

The findings, from a study of women who gave birth in Jerusalem in the mid-1970s and their children, come amid fears that obesity among pregnant British women is reaching epidemic proportions.

Almost half of women of child-bearing age are overweight or obese and more than 15 percent of pregnant women are dangerously overweight.

The researchers weighed and measured 1,400 men and women aged 32 and did a series of blood tests. The results were then compared with data collected about their mothers when they gave birth to them. The analysis, published in the journal Circulation, showed clear links between the two.

The adults whose mothers were the most overweight before becoming pregnant were heavier than the sons and daughters of the lightest women.

Waistlines were on average more than three inches bigger, blood pressure and levels of dangerous blood fats were higher, and readings for ‘good’ cholesterol lower.

Men and women whose mothers put on a lot of weight while pregnant were also more likely to be too heavy for their height as adults. Lead researcher Dr Hagit Hochner, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “We know now that events occurring early in life to foetuses have long-lasting consequences for the health of the adult.”

Study co-author Professor Orly Manor added: “In an age of an ‘overweight epidemic’ in the world, it is important to know the factors that are involved in leading to overweight and other health risks. This understanding makes it essential that we identify these early windows of opportunity in which we can intervene to reduce the risks of chronic illness later in life.”

It is believed mothers may pass on “fat” genes and unhealthy eating habits to their children.

But conditions in the womb are also thought to be important. For instance, exposure to high amounts of sugar and fat may lead to long-lasting changes in appetite control or the storage of fat.

Obese mothers-to-be are more likely to need a caesarean section and are at greater risk of losing blood while giving birth. Their children are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first weeks or months of life and to suffer other birth defects such as club foot or cleft lip.

Concern about the issue is so high that British doctors have started to medicate babies in the womb. In an NHS trial, overweight mothers-to-be in four cities are being given the diabetes drug metformin in a desperate attempt to stop their babies being born obese.

If the trial is a success, the treatment could be in widespread use within five years, with tens of thousands of obese mothers-to-be drugged each year.

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said the Israeli study underlined how “desperately important” it was for women to get in shape before they conceived. - Daily Mail