Passing Down Healthy Paternal Genes, One Green Leafy Vegetable At A Time

Every woman dreams about giving birth to a healthy baby. A new study shows men who eat their green leafy vegetables can make those dreams come true.

In the study published in Nature Communications, researchers from McGill University in Montreal led by Dr. Kimmins found a father’s diet before conception has consequences for his baby’s health, at least in mice.

The scientists focused on folate, found in green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach. Male mice were fed a folate-sufficient or a folate-deficient diet throughout life. The two groups of mice initially appeared identical because no effect on testes or sperm development was found.

But when the different males were mated with folate-sufficient females, the scientists made a striking observation. The females paired with males fed a folate-deficient diet had a difficult time becoming pregnant. If the females conceived, the offspring had an almost 30% increase in birth defects affecting development of their muscles and bones.

“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,” says Dr. Kimmins. The inability to metabolize folate, the scientists think, translates to infertility and birth defects in mice.

Folate is a rich source of organic methyl groups. Methyl groups, composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms, attach to DNA. The DNA is an instruction manual; it determines if a cell becomes a nose, kidney or bone cell. Each page of the manual is a different gene with a unique set of instructions. With so many pages, how does a cell know what to listen to? Methyl groups attach to certain genes to stop them from being read. For a cell destined to become a bone cell, only genes involved in bone cell development are free of methyl groups. If not enough methyl groups are available because of a lack of folate, too many pages are read and the cell receives mixed messages. The cell’s confusion manifests into a developmental defect.

The importance of folate for pregnancy is nothing new, but the focus has always been on women. Women planning to become pregnant are already advised to take vitamins containing folate to prevent miscarriages and birth defects such as spina bifida, a developmental defect of the spine where the spinal cord is exposed. This is the first study to bring awareness to the contribution a father’s diet has on the health of his baby. It also points out the need to extend preconception counseling to men planning to have children.

A woman’s diet logically affects the baby depending on her for nutrients during pregnancy. How can a father’s diet affect a baby’s development if he does not come into contact with the baby in utero? The answer, scientists think, lies hidden in the sperm.

The sperm’s genetic material actually carries a memory of a father’s dietary history. The genetic material in the sperm of mice fed a diet deficient in folate was improperly labeled with methyl groups. It was once thought the methylation pattern was erased from one generation to the next preventing inheritance of our predecessor’s bad eating habits. But scientists made the surprising discovery that history repeats itself. The offspring of male mice fed a diet deficient in folate inherited the mislabeled genetic material. A closer look revealed the genes affected include those implicated in development as well as cancer, diabetes, autism and schizophrenia.

But diet is not the only environmental factor affecting our genes. Our predecessor’s hardships and good fortunes can also leave molecular memories on DNA. Once inherited, they affect our psychology and behavior. You inherited a remarkable ability to bounce back from hardship because your parents grew up in loving homes. You can thank your grandparents for this gift.

We live in an age where fast food has revolutionized how we eat. Cheap and easy food has eliminated the incentive to cook healthy meals. Not surprisingly, our dietary decisions affect our health. We are often reminded, “we are what we eat.” The result is a worldwide obesity problem not only affecting our own health but that of generations to come.

You may be wondering how many servings of green leafy vegetables to eat a day to see an effect. It is still unclear how the findings in mice will translate to humans but to ensure the health of their future children, men should consider changing their lifestyles, one green leafy vegetable at a time.

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