(Photo: Luis Galdamez/Reuters)
Got folate? That's what wannabe dads should be asking themselves if they want to boost their likelihood of having a healthy newborn, a new study led by McGill University researchers suggests.
Expectant mothers are often told they should make sure they're getting enough folate (also known as folic acid or vitamin B9) from foods like leafy greens, cereals, legumes and liver, in order to prevent miscarriages or birth defects such as spina bifida. But the McGill study suggests that fathers aren't off the hook either when it comes to watching what they consume.
"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," lead researcher Dr. Sarah Kimmins said in a press release. Kimmins also holds the Canada Research Chair in Epigenetics, Reproduction and Development.
The McGill team reached their conclusion after finding that male mice with folate deficiencies sired litters that were 30 per cent more likely to have birth defects, compared to a group of mice that were fed folate-sufficient meals. The abnormalities included skeletal problems and spinal deformities.
The scientists said their study shows that sperm can carry a "memory" of the father's lifestyle choices, including diet, which could alter his sperm's epigenome — a second layer of genetic coding that controls which genes are switched on or off. That could, in turn, influence the development of a fetus.
Although much attention has been paid to what pregnant women should be eating, the researchers suggest that a father’s pre-conception diet can also have an effect.
Kimmins said the research has important implications for fathers with poor eating habits, or who mostly consume high-fat, fast food meals, because they may not be able to metabolize folate as well as others. Research published in May also suggests that obesity can affect how the body processes folate.
"People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency," she said. "And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious."
The study was published today in the journal Nature Communications.