How a father’s diet, lifestyle affect his baby’s healthy development

ABOVE: How a father’s diet, lifestyle affect his baby’s healthy development. Jennifer Palisoc reports. 

TORONTO – Don’t drink, limit coffee and take your daily vitamins – the laundry list of rules for expectant moms and women trying to conceive is lengthy, while fathers are off the hook. But a new Canadian study is suggesting that a father’s diet before conception plays an equally important role in the health of his baby.

Scientists at McGill University in Montreal say that levels of vitamin B9, also called folate, in daddy’s diet are critical to a baby’s healthy development. But with today’s diet of predominantly processed fare, Canadian men may not be getting enough folate from their meals. This is especially so for Canadians who live in the north and don’t have access to fresh food.

“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast-food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” lead researcher Dr. Sarah Kimmins said.

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“If you look at the information out there in terms of preventing birth defects, it’s all targeted at the mother. There’s absolutely no mention of the father, but men really need to consider their lifestyle in terms of the health of their future offspring. We know there’s a chance that birth defects could originate pre-conception from the father,” Kimmins told Global News.

Kimmins is a McGill professor and Canada Research Chair in epigenetics and reproductive biology. Her findings were published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Folic acid is found in leafy greens – spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts – and even in some meats and fortified cereals. For women, it’s taken to help prevent miscarriages and birth defects. Meanwhile, men take the vitamin to help increase the odds of getting their partner pregnant.

In her research, Kimmins fed a group of male mice a diet with insufficient folate. The mice with an insufficient folate diet looked just like their peers, they were just as able to breed and just as healthy. She found that this group’s offspring had an increase of birth defects – skeletal abnormalities, structural problems with the head or face, webbing of fingers or the absence of finger development and smaller jaws, for example.

Mice are genetically similar to humans. Kimmins said she thinks the findings would be similar in men and their offspring. Right now, about one in 33 babies is born with a defect.

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While the maternal role in child development has been painstakingly researched, studying the paternal affects on a baby is a growing field of research.

“It’s an area that requires certainly a great deal more attention and it’s gaining focus and attention and traction. It’s been pretty much ignored, but now there’s information that’s showing us – and not just from my lab – that the father’s health may be equally important as the mother’s,” Kimmins said.

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She said her guess is folate helps the sperm epigenome (which is sensitive to diet) control which genes turn on or off in an embryo.

It’s like a light switch that helps to dim or brighten a room. If a dad’s sperm doesn’t have enough folate, it may not be directing genes to turn on or off.

Kimmins said her next step is to collaborate with scientists at a fertility client to assess the link between the diet and weight of men and the health outcomes of their offspring.

In the meantime, she is encouraging hopeful fathers to think about their diet and lifestyle.

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“Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come,” said Kimmins.

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