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You Are What Your Dad Eats?

-Study Suggests that a Father’s Diet before Conception Plays a Vital Role in Offspring Health

For a long time, people pay close attention to pregnant women’s healthy diet – babies spend about 40 weeks in mothers’ belly, sharing nutrition and internal secretion environment with their mothers, so of course mothers should pay much attention to their diet. However, a McGill University study published on Nature Communication suggests that expectant fathers’ diet also play an important role on babies’ health. [1]

Folate (Vitamin B9) is one of the essential nutrients for human body and it’s closely associated with DNA forming and repairing as well as methylation. It can be found in fresh vegetables, fruits and coarse foods, but can be easily decomposed when being cooked at high temperature. Moreover, smoking and intemperance can prevent human body from intaking folate.  The researchers investigated folate’s effect on mice and discovered that father mice that have taken in enough folate before “going to the front”, usually have healthy offspring. If father mice are lack of folate, not only spermatocyte will have DNA damage, but sperm’s epigenome will be different and in low quality, and hence offspring mice might undergo various congenital defects.

 “Offspring from fathers low in folate level show 30% increased rate of defect, which also makes us surprised.” Says Romain Lambrot from Department of Animal Science, McGill University:” Some of them have serious skeleton deformity, including both cranio-facial and spinal deformities.”

father mice and child mice

Compared with father with sufficient folate (a), mice from fathers in low folate level (b – e) usually show higher likelihood of malformation. *Image source: Romain Lambrot, et al.(2013)Nature Communications.

 “We speculate that offspring’s birth defects have nothing to do with these DNA damages.” Says Professor Sarah Kimmins. Although the research team found few DNA damages, they didn’t detect them in mature sperms. “We suspect that the changes of epigenome in father’s sperm is most closely connected with these congenital defect.” Kimmins notes.

Most creatures can influence gene expression by modifying the genetic materials: If we assume gene as “manufacturer’s manual” for the “workshop” – cell, then the gene modifications are like “tags”, reminding the “staffs” near the assembly line of which gene is useless and which one needs to use more. These “tags” will be kept during cell reproduction and influence the system for a long term. Scientists call a group of all gene modifications in a tissue or an individual as “epigenome”, through which scientists can further study the correlation between gene and phenotype. [2]

During the formation of sperms, the epigenome of sperm cells experiences a process similar to “system reinstallation” [3] – where nucleates don’t change much, but the chemical modifications on nucleates will undergo large-scale alteration such as demethylation and remethylation. Ootid also has corresponding “reinstallation” process, however it occurs relatively slow. The researchers discovered that offspring from father mice inadequate of folate exhibited abnormal methylation level in many important genes including those related with nerve, urogenital, immune and digestion systems; while their sperms show different methylation levels in many disease-causing genes, such as those related with some cancers, diabetes mellitus, and neuratixia – which are more or less linked to congenital defects of offspring. This suggests that the intake of different nutrients like folate in diet can directly affect epigenome modifications during the sperm formation process, and thus change offspring’s gene expression.

 “Even mother mice are nutritionally adequate, they can’t make up for the adverse influence on embryos from father mice with malnutrition. Male mice with insufficient folate mates with nutritionally sufficient female mice will give birth to offspring that still has birth defects.” Kimmins says:” Mice and human are very similar in terms of their epigenome. We predict that the same situation will happen in human. One out of every 33 newborns has congenital defects and 50% of the cases have unknown origins. Many cases that are difficult to explain, may find their origins from their fathers.”

father eating baby

Although “you are what your father eats” is an exaggerated saying, fathers’ diet habits do have influence on babies’ health. *Image source: goodmenproject.com

 “Our study recommends that expectant fathers need to pay attention to their diet habits, including smoking or intemperance; they have to think about how they can influence their offspring,” Kimmins cautions us. If everything goes smoothly, they plan to cooperate with hospitals and start to evaluate whether and how males’ diet and obesity can affect offspring’s health.


  1. Romain Lambrot, et al. Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes.Nature Communications (2013) 4:2889
  2. Bradley E. Bernstein, Alexander Meissner, Eric S. Lander. The mammalian epigenome.Cell (2007) 128.4: 669-681.
  3. Hugh D.Morgan, et al. Epigenetic reprogramming in mammals.Human molecular genetics (2005) 14.suppl 1: R47-R58.