Russian dolls depicting a family

Epigenetic effects

Our parents’ diets may influence our health

Are you eating the perfect diet to boost your health? Make sure your parents did, too. Recent evidence suggests that epigenetic effects – patterns of switching in the on/off controls on genes – can pass down one or even two generations.

Babies who were born during extreme food shortages in the Netherlands during World War II had low birth weights. They also had higher rates of heart disease in later life, a sign of metabolic stress during early development. To geneticists’ surprise, so did their children, even though they were born long after the famine was over.

Mothers who have poor diets and grow obese may also alter their offspring’s metabolism. Studies in rats in 2010 suggested that obesity in adult males can increase the risk of their daughters developing diabetes. It is possible this effect arises from the long-term consumption of a high-fat diet. Alternatively, there may be crucial periods in a father’s development when sperm are affected. Further research is needed. Other studies continue to broaden the known effects of these epigenetic influences. Experiments with rats on ‘junk food’ diets suggest that an increased breast cancer risk associated with a high-fat diet persisted for three generations.

Lead image:

Ivan/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Food and Diet’ in June 2011 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Genetics and genomics, Health, infection and disease
Food and Diet
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development