The likelihood of adults developing obesity and many other health problems might be determined in the womb, according to a report published today.
Women need to know that their weight and health during pregnancy, and before they conceive, plays a key part in securing a healthy long-term future for their children, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) said.
A BNF taskforce has been looking at aspects of nutrition and early life development, including the impact of a mother's health and eating habits on her baby even before conception.
They concluded that obesity, asthma, allergies, cardiovascular disease and many more conditions might be handed on from the mother.
Taskforce chairman Professor Tom Sanders said: "Evidence suggests that poor foetal growth, especially followed by accelerated growth in infancy, may be associated with long-term adverse consequences for health.
"Poor foetal growth may also affect kidney development, making offspring more sensitive to the blood pressure raising effect of salt and, therefore, increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease."
The report -- called Nutrition and Development: short and long-term consequences for health -- looks at the causes of obesity and concludes that the increased appetite some people have in adulthood compared with others might have also been programmed in the womb as a result of their mother's diet and weight.
Almost half of women of child-bearing age in England are overweight or obese and this can be the cause of a biological cycle of maternal obesity leading to health issues for children in later life.
Sara Stanner, science programme manager at BNF, said: "There is now unequivocal evidence to show the biological link between obesity and weight-related health issues in women and their children.
"This is a very important message in the fight against obesity. Women need to know that their weight and health, during pregnancy and even before they conceive, plays a key part in securing a healthy long-term future for their children.
"Once a baby is conceived, the biological framework for its future health is already set, so, where possible, women should look to improve their health status before they conceive.
"A major challenge the UK faces in addressing the obesity epidemic is the fact that around half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned."
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To help women make positive changes to their health, BNF has produced a four-week planner containing useful information and practical advice on healthy eating and physical activity.
Healthy Life Planner for Women is available to download free from BNF's website: www.nutrition.org.uk.
Commenting on the publication of the report, Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: "We look forward to this report with great interest. We know that good nutrition is incredibly important to the health of the pregnant woman and her developing baby.
"Good nutrition in pregnancy can also have a significant impact on the health of the baby well into its adult life, and midwives are perfectly placed to stress the importance of a good diet before and during pregnancy.
"Obesity is without doubt a problem and can have detrimental effects in pregnancy. It is an issue we need to tackle and midwives have a key role to play in helping obese women in their care, to promote better health in their pregnancy and beyond. This is a public health role of the midwife that is often overlooked and under-recognised.
"We are desperately short of midwives in England and investment is needed in midwifery so that they can carry out this part of their work much more effectively, to the benefit of the public health of the nation.
"These findings also show the value of preconception care and midwives can provide this as part of their care after birth in readiness for later pregnancies."
The RCM is working with the BNF to help practitioners improve their nutrition knowledge.