By Dr. Mercola
The decisions you make before your baby is born have a significant impact on his or her health for years to come. It’s only been recently that researchers have begun to fully understand the complexity behind the human genome and the extent to which it is expressed for generations in the future.1
Both mother’s and father’s genetic material have an impact on the health of their offspring, including the likelihood the child may experience obesity in his or her lifetime.2 Each year, scientists discover new information that links your health with a transgenerational impact.
New research has also linked the impact of pregnancy weight gain with the future weight of your child, even when your little one is born in a normal weight range.3
In addition, research shows that consuming artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may also influence your child’s future weight. The choices women make during pregnancy continue to follow the child all his life.
Consuming Artificial Sweeteners During Pregnancy May Influence Your Child’s Weight
The use of artificial sweeteners has increased substantially in the past decade. Between 1991 and 2007, the use of artificial sweeteners almost doubled.4
Previously, animal studies suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners while pregnant would place the offspring at risk for obesity. Until recently, there have not been human studies demonstrating the same effect.
Research led by Meghan Azad, Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba examined the association between mothers who drank diet sodas sweetened with artificial sweeteners, such as NutraSweet, Splenda and Equal, and the effect on the baby’s body mass index (BMI) in the first year after birth. 5
Over 3,000 women participated in the study. Drinking diet sodas daily appeared to increase the risk two-fold that the infant would be overweight when they reached 1 year of age. They did not find a comparable association with the consumption of drinks sweetened with regular white sugar.
The researchers could not link the increased risk of obesity in the baby with other obesity risk factors, such as mother’s weight, quality of the diet and total calorie intake. The authors, quoted in ScienceDaily, concluded:
“To our knowledge, our results provide the first human evidence that artificial sweetener consumption during pregnancy may increase the risk of early childhood overweight.
Given the current epidemic of childhood obesity and the widespread consumption of artificial sweeteners, further research is warranted to replicate our findings in other cohorts, evaluate specific NNS (nonnutritive sweeteners) and longer-term outcomes, and study the underlying biological mechanisms.”6
How Aspartame Is Broken Down in Your Body
Aspartame is a sweet substance used primarily in low-calorie drinks. It was discovered quite by accident when chemist James Schlatter Ph.D., was working on a drug to treat ulcers.7 Originally sold under the brand name NutraSweet, today it is also the artificial sweetener in Equal, Equal Spoonful and Equal Measure.
Aspartame stimulates your taste buds in the same way as sugar but with significant differences. It’s created by combining two different amino acids, with a hydrocarbon attached to add sweetness.
Once inside your digestive system, it’s broken down into two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methanol, an alcohol molecule. The aspartic acid in aspartame has been synthetically altered to carry the methanol molecule, the hydrocarbon responsible for the sweetness of the chemical.
Because the methanol is not bonded to a fiber molecule as it is in fruits and vegetables, it is not safely carried out of your body but rather is converted by an enzyme into formaldehyde.
The Short Version
In 1995, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was quoted as saying they were no longer accepting adverse reaction reports related to aspartame.8
At that time, aspartame accounted for approximately 75 percent of all adverse reaction reports related to food additives.9 Research studying the effects of aspartame has shown conflicting results.
However, after a thorough investigation of 166 different studies, Dr. Ralph Walton, a professor of Psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine, found 100 percent of those studies financed by the industry supported the safety of aspartame.10
In contrast, between 92 percent and 100 percent of independently financed studies found adverse reactions in participants using aspartame. Walton noted:
“If the FDA studies and the literature review focusing only on the NutraSweet® industry funded research are excluded, then 100 percent of the truly independently funded research demonstrated some type of adverse reaction to aspartame.
Whether 100 percent or 92 percent, the clear split in the literature, with outcome correlated so closely to funding source, is deeply troubling.”11
The formaldehyde exposure from aspartame is significant, and only one of the chemicals responsible for adverse reactions you may experience.
Influence of Aspartame on Weight
Aspartame doesn’t just have an influence on your growing baby’s genetic profile, but also on your weight gain, and the obesity risk your child faces after birth, irrespective of their birth weight or your weight.14
Several studies have demonstrated the effect of artificial sweeteners on your appetite and weight gain.15,16 Aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners, actually stimulate your appetite, increase your cravings for carbohydrates and stimulate your body to store more fat.
These effects are triggered by how your body metabolizes and reacts to aspartame. Normally when you eat something sweet your brain releases dopamine, activating your brain’s reward center. This also triggers the release of leptin, another hormone, telling your brain when you are full.
Aspartame stimulates the release of dopamine, but because it is a no-calorie sweetener, your body doesn’t release leptin and you rarely feel full or satisfied. This increases your cravings for carbohydrates, increasing your risk for weight gain.
Aspartame in Your Gut
Another pathway affecting your weight maintenance is the way aspartame affects your gut microbiome. In a study published in Nature, researchers demonstrated an intake of aspartame in their research population resulted in a change in gut microbiome and a reduced sensitivity to insulin.17,18
Even low-dose ingestion of aspartame can affect your microbiome and change your insulin sensitivity.19 These changes affect your ability to maintain your weight and increase your risk of obesity prior to pregnancy and may also increase your risk of gaining too much weight during pregnancy.
Weight Gain During Pregnancy
In past studies, researchers have linked a higher weight gain during your pregnancy with a greater risk of having an overweight newborn. However, a current study has taken this information one step further, demonstrating your weight gain during pregnancy is linked to your child’s risk of obesity, even if he is born at a normal weight.20
This study followed more than 13,000 normal-weight babies for 10 years. At the end of the study, approximately 49 percent were overweight and 29 percent were obese at some time between the ages of 2 and 10 years. Lead study author, Dr. Teresa Hillier of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon and Honolulu, Hawaii stated:21
It is a common belief that all normal weight babies have the same risk of becoming obese as children and adults. This study shows that that isn’t true.”
Long-Term Risks of Childhood Obesity
The effects of childhood obesity may be experienced long into adulthood. According to a study from the University of Colorado Cancer Center, childhood obesity may have detrimental effects on the health of your child independent of adult obesity.22,23 The researchers theorize that if your child is overweight and loses weight in adulthood, those detrimental health effects will continue to plague them. Childhood obesity has been linked to: 24,25
✓ Metabolic syndrome
✓ Cardiovascular disease
✓ Retinal and renal complications from diabetes
✓ Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
✓ Obstructive sleep apnea
✓ Polycystic ovarian syndrome
✓ Orthopedic complications
✓ Psychiatric disease
✓ Increased rates of some cancers
Steps to Preventing Childhood Obesity
As with many health conditions, it’s easier to prevent the condition than it is to treat the effects. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in childhood and quadrupled in adolescents since 1985.26 Even if you gained too much weight during pregnancy or started your pregnancy overweight, you can still take specific steps to reduce the odds your child will suffer from obesity. Hillier recommends:
“She can breastfeed her infant; studies show that breastfed babies are less likely to become obese and we also found breastfeeding reduced childhood obesity in a small subsample of our study. She can also feed her child healthy foods, and get nutritional advice about what to feed her baby, especially when it comes to starting on solid food, and she can make sure her she and her child get plenty of exercise.” 27
Incorporating these recommendations into your everyday life when you are pregnant may reduce your own risk of obesity and the risk to your children.
1. Eliminate Artificial Sweeteners
Eliminate foods and drinks that contain any artificial sweeteners. Read the labels on the foods, snacks and drinks you purchase. Move toward eating more real food during the day. Pay attention to mints or other small candies that may contain artificial sweeteners.
2. Drink Water
Hydration is important to your health and the health of your baby. Don’t rely on drinking a set amount of water each day as your fluid needs will change as your baby grows. Instead, rely on the color of your urine. When fully hydrated your urine will be light yellow in color and will not have any strong odor.
3. Increase Fiber
One of the benefits of eating high-fiber foods is you can more easily reduce the amount of carbohydrates you consume. The important number is your net carbs. This number is calculated by taking the total number of carbohydrates in grams you’ve eaten in the day and subtracting the amount of fiber in grams. The resulting number is your net carbs.
In addition, eating a fiber-rich diet may help reduce your risk of constipation during pregnancy and improve your digestive process. Seek to include approximately 40 to 50 grams of fiber (from both soluble and insoluble fiber sources) for every 1,000 calories you eat each day.
4. Reduce Fructose
Fructose is a sugar found in fruit and in many processed foods and drinks. You might be familiar with the term “high-fructose corn syrup” (HFCS) used to sweeten some foods. HFCS will increase your triglyceride and low density lipoprotein levels (LDL), increase your insulin resistance, increase your risk of gestational diabetes and increase the amount of fat your body stores.
Although you may consume the same number of calories with HFCS, glucose, protein or fat, the metabolic effect in your body will be entirely different if you consume excessive amounts of fructose.
Exercising during pregnancy is important to your health both during and after birth. Labor is intensive exercise, which your body will be better able to cope with if you’ve been working out through the pregnancy. Exercise will also help to control your appetite and normalize your insulin levels, helping you to control your weight.
6. Recondition Your Brain
One of the important things you can do during pregnancy is to help recondition your brain to the foods you need to maintain a healthy pregnancy. Manufacturers define a “bliss point” in foods. This is the “magic” combination of sugar and other ingredients added to a processed food precisely to increase your craving for that food without overwhelming the taste.
Sugar naturally triggers the production of the same chemicals in your brain as opiate drugs, making it as addictive as cocaine to some people.
One way to reprogram your brain is to use the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). This is a simple method that uses the principles of acupuncture without the needles or, sometimes, the need for a practitioner. It is so easy, you can learn it and use it at home.
When your body’s energy system is disrupted from the carbs, sugars, processed foods and sweets in a typical Western diet, you’re likely to experience distractions and cravings. This can lead to emotional eating and weight gain. Instead, use EFT to reduce your cravings and achieve more normal weight gain during pregnancy and beyond.