The animal research, due to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), suggests that consumption of unhealthy 'junk foods' during pregnancy alters the development of opiod pathways in offspring - leading to permanently modified brain signalling in response to foods that are high in sugar and fat.
Led by Jessica Gugusheff from the FoodPlus research centre at the University of Adelaide, the research team used rat models to investigate the effects of junk food consumption during pregnancy, finding that the gene encoding one of the key endogenous opioids - enkephalin - is expressed at higher levels in the babies of mothers who consumed a high level of 'junk food' than in the offspring of mothers who ate standard rat feed.
Gugusheff and her colleagues explained that this leads to offspring that are less sensitive to opioids, and means these babies will have to eat more junk foods get the same 'feel good' response - so leading to a higher consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods.
"The results of this study will eventually permit us to better inform pregnant women about the enduring effect their diet has on the development of their child's lifelong food preferences and risk of negative metabolic outcomes," said Gugusheff.
Gugusheff and her colleagues analysed the effects of a junk food diet in rats by investigating their responses to the opioid antagonist naloxone in the offspring of rats fed either a standard rat feed diet or a 'junk food' diet.
The team found a significant interaction between maternal diet and the expression of opiod genes.
"These results suggest that perinatal exposure to a junk food diet alters the response of the mesolimbic reward pathway to opioid receptor blockade and may indicate functional consequences on the regulation of opioid signaling in junk food exposed offspring," concluded the research team.
Soruce: Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior
" A maternal ‘junk food’ diet alters the response of the mesolimbic reward system to naloxone in offspring post-weaning."
Authors: JR, ZY Ong, BS Muhlhausler
Study abstract found here