It is no surprise that a mother’s diet directly influences her baby’s health. After all, the developing fetus spends about nine months in the mother’s womb. In recent years, there has been speculation about whether a father’s lifestyle could affect the health of his unborn child. Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of technology (RMIT) in Australia have conducted a study that addresses just that.
For the study, lead researcher, Antonio Paolini and his team divided male rats into two groups, based on how much food they were fed. Rats in one group were fed excessively, while rats in the second group were fed 25% less calories. The study compared the behaviours of these male rats with their offspring.
Fathers who consumed less food sired offspring who also ate little and, therefore, gained less weight. This gives credence to what is already known about how eating behaviour and weight gain run in families. Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers noticed that these offspring, whose fathers ate less, were also less anxious. According to Paolini, less food enhances the animal’s survival instincts, which makes him less anxious and more comfortable exploring his environment.
The fact that an expectant father’s diet could potentially impact his child’s anxiety is alarming. This study, along with others, challenges our traditional culture of thinking that it is mainly the mother’s diet that directly influences the development of her baby. It has been known for some time, for instance, that a pregnant woman’s intake of folate, a vitamin, can help ensure that her baby is healthy. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal used this information to inform their study on the relationship between an expectant father’s diet and his baby’s health. Lo and behold, they discovered that if an expectant father does not get enough folate in his diet, his child is more at risk for developing birth defects.
The two studies that I have cited complement each other and enter into a discourse on how we think about environmental factors and a baby’s development. Both studies suggest that an expectant father also has some impact on his unborn baby’s health. These studies can, therefore, recondition how we prepare ourselves during pregnancy. Paolini agrees that “… it [is] important for both mothers and fathers to consider their environment and things such as diet, alcohol consumption and smoking, before conceiving.” Acknowledging the father’s impact on the health of his baby is significant for understanding the pathologies of congenital and acquired illnesses.
The statistics on the prevalence of mental illness in Canada are alarming. An astounding 20% of Canadians experience some form of mental illness. The investigations into factors that influence fetal development, therefore, have long-term implications for destigmatising and responding to mental illness. The crisis of mental illness in Canada can only be attenuated if we are equipped with knowledge and a directive to constantly challenge and dispute.
With that being said, Paolini and his team provide rationale as to how a father’s diet can influence the behaviour of his offspring before they are born. The team at RMIT has shown that an expectant father’s diet could induce epigenetic modifications to his sperm cells. This means that what the father puts into his body can turn the genes in his sperm cells on or off. By regulating which genes in his sperm cells are active, the father’s diet can directly impact his unborn baby’s health and behaviour.
Researchers are still curious as to which specific genes are being turned on or off to influence the child’s behaviour. By understanding the underlying biological basis of mental illness, we can more effectively approach and target mental health issues here in Canada.