Recently published research from Tufts University suggests that babies born to obese mothers have lower iron levels at birth than those born to moms at a healthy weight.
The reason? Obesity causes chronic low-grade inflammation that boosts production of hepcidin, a protein that lowers circulating iron levels. Hepcidin production is a helpful part of the immune response if an infection is present: since many bugs need iron to reproduce, keeping blood iron levels low is a good infection-fighting mechanism. But if too much hepcidin is inappropriately produced in pregnancy, it may interfere with iron transfer to the fetus, the new research found.
The impact on the babies' health isn't entirely clear, but could be significant. ScienceDaily reports:
Because iron plays a crucial role in the formation of the central nervous system, children born with iron deficiency are at a greater risk for delays in motor and cognitive development.
"The data on the impact of low maternal iron levels on the fetus comes from undernourished populations," said first author Sarbattama Sen, MD, a neonatologist at Tufts Medical Center and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM). "To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study to demonstrate that obesity might hamper iron transfer from mother to child and offers some insight into the mechanism of how it occurs. Future studies, however, are needed to confirm the role of obesity associated with inflammation during pregnancy on hepcidin and iron status of the newborn."
For now, the story concludes, pregnant mothers at any weight should eat a balanced diet, take their prenatal vitamins (which include extra iron) and follow their doctors' advice about how much weight to gain in pregnancy. Study authors say further work is needed to assess whether nutrition recommendations for pregnant women should be modified to take obesity into account.