How Can Animal Protein Intake Increase Childhood Obesity Risk?

If pregnant crickets are exposed to a predatory wolf spider, their babies will hatch, exhibiting increased antipredator behavior and, as a consequence, improved survival from wolf spider attack. The mother cricket appears to be able to forewarn her babies about the threat when they are still inside her, so they would be pre-adapted to their external environment. This even happens in plants. If you grow two genetically identical plants—one in the sun, one in the shade—the sun-grown plant will produce seeds that grow better in the sun, and the shaded plant will produce seeds that grow better in the shade—even though they’re genetically identical.

What’s happening is called epigenetics, external factors changing gene expression.

Vole pups born in the winter come out growing thicker coats. Vole mothers are able to communicate the season to their babies in utero and tell them to put a coat on even before they’re born. We’re no different. You know how some people have different temperature tolerances, resulting in “battles of the bedroom”? Do you turn the AC on or off? Open the windows? It’s not just genetics. Whether we’re born in the tropics or in a cold environment determines how many active sweat glands we have in our skin.

What does this have to do with diet? As I discuss in my video Animal Protein, Pregnancy, and Childhood Obesity, can what a pregnant woman eats—or doesn’t eat—permanently alter the biology of her children in terms of what genes are turned on or off throughout life?

What happened to the children born during the 1944 – 1945 Dutch famine imposed by the Nazis? They had higher rates of obesity 50 years later. The baby’s DNA gene expression was reprogrammed before birth to expect to be born into a world of famine and conserve calories at all cost. But when the war ended, this propensity to store fat became a disadvantage. What pregnant women eat and don’t eat doesn’t just help determine the birth weight of the child, but the future adult weight of the child.

For example, maternal protein intake during pregnancy may play a role in the obesity epidemic—but not just protein in general. “Protein from animal sources, primarily meat products, consumed during pregnancy may increase risk of overweight in offspring…” Originally, researchers thought it might be the IGF-1, a growth hormone boosted by animal product consumption, that may increase the production of fatty tissue, but weight gain was tied more to meat intake than dairy. Every daily portion of meat intake during the third trimester of pregnancy resulted in about an extra 1 percent of body fat mass in their children by their 16th birthday, potentially increasing their risk of becoming obese later in life, independent of how many calories they ate or how much they exercised.  But no such link was found with cow’s milk intake, which would presumably boost IGF-1 levels just as high.

Given that, perhaps instead of IGF-1, it’s the obesogens in meat, chemicals that stimulate the growth of fatty tissue. “[E]merging evidence demonstrates that environmental factors can predispose exposed individuals to gain weight, irrespective of diet and exercise.” After all, even our infants are fatter, and we can’t blame that on diet and exercise. Animals are fatter, too, and not just our pampered pets—even rats in laboratories and subways are bigger. “The likelihood of 24 animal populations from eight different species all showing a positive trend in weight over the past few decades by chance was estimated at about 1 in 10 million” so it appears something else is going on—something like obesogenic chemicals.

One such candidate is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, and grilled meat. A nationwide study of thousands found that the more children were exposed to PAHs, the fatter they tended to be. The researchers could measure the level of these chemicals right out of their urine. Exposure can start in the womb. Indeed, prenatal exposure to these chemicals may cause increased fat mass gained during childhood and a higher risk of childhood obesity.

If these pollutants sound familiar, I’ve covered them before in relation to increasing breast cancer risk in the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project. So, perhaps they aren’t just obesogens, but carcinogens, as well, which may help explain the 47 percent increase in breast cancer risk among older women in relation to a lifetime average of grilled and smoked foods.

If we look at one of the most common of these toxins, smokers get about half from food and half from cigarettes. For nonsmokers, however, 99 percent comes from diet. The highest levels of PAHs are found in meat, with pork apparently worse than beef. Even dark green leafies like kale can get contaminated by pollutants in the air, though, so don’t forage for dandelion greens next to the highway and make sure to wash your greens under running water.

These are fat-soluble pollutants, so they need lots of fat to be absorbed. It’s possible that even heavily contaminated plant-based sources may be safer, unless you pour lots of oil on your food, in which case the toxins would presumably become as readily absorbed as the toxins in meat.

The good news is they don’t build up in our body. As I show in my video, if we expose people to barbecued chicken, they get a big spike in these chemicals—up to a hundred-fold increase—but our body can get rid of them within about 20 hours. The problem, of course, is that people who eat these kinds of foods every day could be constantly exposing themselves, which may not only affect their health and their children’s health, but maybe even their grandchildren’s health.

Being pregnant during the Dutch famine of the mid-1940s didn’t just lead to an increase in diseases among their kids, but even apparently their grandkids. What a pregnant woman eats now may affect future generations. “The issue of generation-spanning effects of poor conditions during [pregnancy]…may shed light on the epidemic of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease,” which is associated with the transition towards Western lifestyles.


Epigenetics is the science of altering the expression of our genes. No matter our family history, some genes can be effectively turned on and off by the lifestyle choices we make. See, for example:

For more on “obesogenic” chemicals, see:

I previously touched on PAHs in Meat Fumes: Dietary Secondhand Smoke.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let’s do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn’t find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn’t find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called “secondary metabolites” of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, “Ew, this tastes like broccoli!” But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don’t have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven’t yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven’t been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving’s worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it’s not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods (including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better? 

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: