HAMPSHIRE academics have proved that mums-to-be who eat higher levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy have fatter children.

Researchers believe their findings could help cut the rising obesity epidemic.

The team from the University of Southampton found children born to women who had higher levels of the n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in cooking oils and nuts during pregnancy were more likely to be fat at the ages of four and six.

But the research also revealed mums with higher levels of omega 3 acids found in fish oil gave birth to youngsters who went on to have higher levels of muscle and bone, and less fat.

Members of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit measured the fat and muscle mass of 293 boys and girls at four and six years, who are part of the Southampton Women's Survey.

The assessments were compared to the concentrations of PUFAs, which were measured in blood samples collected from their mothers during pregnancy.

Senior Lecturer Dr Nicholas Harvey, who led the research with Clinical Research Fellow Dr Rebecca Moon, said: “Obesity is a rising problem in this country and there have been very few studies of mother's fatty acid levels during pregnancy and offspring fat mass.

“These results suggest that alterations to maternal diet during pregnancy to reduce n-6 PUFAs intake might have a beneficial effect on the body composition of the developing child.”

Dr Moon said she believes the results show a strategy to give pregnant women more omega 3 could help cut the number of overweight children, but only when combined with efforts to cut consumption of the polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Head of the MRC unit, Professor Cyrus Cooper, said the research is one of several being carried out.

He said: “This study forms part of a larger programme of research at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit and University of Southampton in which we are seeking to understand how factors such as diet and lifestyle in the mother during pregnancy, and of the child in early life, influence a child's body composition and bone development.

“This work should help us to design interventions aimed at optimising body composition in childhood and later adulthood and thus improve the health of future generations.”