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Research and Scholarship

Fertile Foundations for Future Health

We have all heard the expression that a pregnant woman is eating for two; but how should a mother eat to safeguard both her own health and that of her offspring?

Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the UCD School of Medicine, Fionnuala McAuliffe is looking at how simple interventions like following a low-Glycaemic index (GI) diet, taking vitamin and probiotic supplements, and even low-dose aspirin, could make for safer pregnancies and a good foundation for future health.

According to Professor McAuliffe, “Pregnancy is a unique opportunity to intervene because the developing foetus is hugely influenced by maternal environment – so the mother’s diet is one aspect we are looking at”.

Professor McAuliffe, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and Maternal and Fetal Medicine Specialist at the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, recently led the ‘ROLO’ study.

The study aimed to look at the effects of adopting a low-GI diet on expectant mothers who are at rick of developing diabetes. Adopting a low-GI diet involves avoiding processed sugar where possible, replacing processed grains with whole grains and eating plenty of vegetables.

We are finding that the mother’s saturated fat intake during pregnancy is correlated with fatness of the child at age two.


800 women took part in the study, which showed that babies born to mothers following the low-GI regime had smaller skin folds (a measure of fatness), and the low-GI mothers tended to gain less weight in pregnancy and had more favourable blood-sugar profiles.

The ROLO study was a landmark in the field of maternal nutrition in pregnancy, says Professor McAuliffe. And follow-ups with the initial mothers and babies show that the effects of nutrition in pregnancy can have a lasting impact.

When comparing the effects of summer pregnancies vs. winter pregnancies, Professor McAuliffe found that babies from winter pregnancies tended to have shorter thighbones.

“We are finding that the mother’s saturated fat intake during pregnancy is correlated with fatness of the child at age two, and the mother’s sugar intake is also correlated with markers of skinfold thickness in the child at age two. We suspect that the mother’s nutrition plays a part in ‘programming’ the child’s metabolism – so the effects of what we eat in pregnancy can be long-term”.

The “sunshine vitamin” or vitamin D has long been associated with healthy teeth and bones. However, new research brought to light by Professor McAuliffe shows that vitamin D intake during pregnancy could have positive implications.

Delving deeper still, Professor McAuliffe is now investigating whether a lack of vitamin D during pregnancy could be linked to diabetes and other inflammatory conditions in the longer term.

Professor McAuliffe has also set her sights on the bacteria that live in our guts, finding that “in women with gestational diabetes, probiotic supplements slightly reduced their cholesterol which is quite a significant finding because women with gestational diabetes are at high risk of having abnormal lipids”

Featured Researcher:

Professor Fionnuala McCauliffe

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