You Are What Your Mother and Father (and Grandmothers and Grandfathers) Ate

Family HandsOn September 11, 2001, passenger jets struck the Twin Towers, leveling them, killing thousands of New Yorkers, and traumatizing tens of thousands more. Among those directly affected, but not killed, by the attack were 1700 pregnant women. Some of those women developed post traumatic stress disorder, some did not. When the PTSD-positive group had their kids, their cortisol secretion was lower and stress response to novel stimuli was impaired. Although as fetuses they weren’t conscious of the chaos, it affected them as if they had directly witnessed the blast. The affected children were no different genetically – they didn’t have “the stress gene.” Rather, the activity of the genes that regulate the stress response had been altered by an environmental input.

This was epigenetics in action.

Epigenetics isn’t just relevant to pregnant women and their offspring, either. Dads matter too. In one recent study (PDF), male mice were subjected to ongoing chronic, intense stress. They were placed in cages with and beat up by larger, more dominant males. Essentially, they were bullied for ten days straight. This gave them the mouse versions of PTSD, depression, and severe anxiety. After, they bred with normal females. Their pups were born “stressed out” and anxious, uninterested even in sugar water when subjected to stressors. The anxious pups avoided social contact with other mice as much as possible. The pups’ mothers weren’t exposed to stress during pregnancy; only the dads’ life experiences before conception could explain the differences, which correlated with changes to gene expression in the pups.

Epigenetic shockwaves can reach far into the future, too. Until the 20th century, the people of Overkalix, Sweden were at the mercy of the elements. Winter brought total isolation, with every route into and out of the municipality completely frozen over and inaccessible. That meant if the harvest was poor, the people flirted with starvation. If the harvest was good, they prospered and thrived. It was either famine or feast. In 2002, Swedish researchers analyzed the extensive birth, death, and health records of the area to see how this feast and famine cycle of the 19th century might have affected the health of the population. Amazingly, they found that boys who ate very well during late childhood were more likely to go on to have grandsons with health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and early mortality later in life. On the other hand, boys who experienced famine during late childhood had longer-lived grandsons with fewer health problems.

What does this all mean?

That our choices are bigger than us. It’s easy to see how the foods we eat, the exercises we do (or don’t), and all the other choices we make can affect our own health, in this lifetime. Anyone who’s ever made a positive change to their lifestyle and seen the subsequent health benefits can attest to that. But these stories indicate that those very same life experiences can send epigenetic shockwaves to your offspring – and in some cases your offspring’s offspring. There’s more to it than bullied mice, Swedish famines, and terrorist attacks, though, as you’ll see below. The life experiences of both moms and dads can exert a wide range of powerful effects. But how, exactly?

Maternal Epigenetic Transfer

Moms transfer epigenetic effects via two routes. First, as an epigenetic factor herself. After all, the mom is the primary environment for the fetus. Anything that happens to the mom – famine, stress, overnutrition, undernutrition, chronic sleep loss, terrorist attack – also happens to the fetus, sometimes even if it occurs pre-conception. Second, when a woman is pregnant, she’s not just carrying the fetus and transmitting epigenetic changes to the fetal genes from her life experiences. She also carries the fetus’ reproductive cells which will either develop into eggs or sperm. Any changes to the gene expression of these reproductive cells during their development in the fetus may also affect subsequent offspring. So at least three generations are affected by the environmental input during pregnancy: the mom, the fetus, and the fetus’ future offspring.

Paternal Epigenetic Transfer

Dads transfer epigenetic inheritance through changes to the sperm. If a male fetus is subjected to an epigenetic input in the womb as his reproductive cells are developing, he may grow up with forever altered sperm that in turn affects his progeny. As seen in the case of the Swedish village, male sperm may also be vulnerable in late childhood right before puberty, which is when sperm cells are maturing and “finalizing.” And then you’ve got the mouse studies that suggest inheritance can transfer even when the father’s experiences happen as an adult. The amount of research into paternal epigenetic transfer pales in comparison to that of maternal epigenetics, but it appears to play a role just the same (if perhaps not as prominent).

It’s easy to get bogged down in epigenetic mechanisms, but what you’re really here for is to learn how we can shape our offspring’s health. Let’s explore, shall we?


Nutrition – the types of foods we eat, the numbers of calories we consume, and our overall metabolic state – plays perhaps the biggest and best studied epigenetic role in the health of our offspring. A few examples:

Among isogenic (identical, genetically) mice, those born to obese and diabetic mothers showed changes in liver gene expression that predisposed them to obesity when faced with a Western-style diet. In other words, mice born to leaner mothers weren’t just leaner, they were somewhat epigenetically resistant to the obesogenic effects of the Standard American Diet.

Lesson? Avoid obesity and diabetes during pregnancy (and always, really). You can’t force your kids to eat Primal, but you can set them up for metabolic robustness. 

In contrast to the earlier example of grandfathers who spent the formative years of their childhood in lean times siring grandsons with better metabolic health and longevity, mothers who experienced undernutrition during pregnancy gave birth to offspring with altered hypothalamic gene expression, a propensity to overeat, disrupted glucose tolerance, and lowered energy expenditure – the kind of gene expression that would help someone survive starvation. Those same epigenetic changes to gene expression were also found in twin lambs born to both underfed (a period spanning 60 days prior to and 30 days after conception) and well-fed sheep, suggesting that it’s the “perception” of famine (whether actual or imagined) that triggers the starvation epigenome.

Lesson? Don’t try to diet and restrict calories while pregnant. Weight gain is totally normal, healthy, and necessary when building a tiny human inside your body.

Male mice who were fasted for a day or two a few weeks before mating sired offspring (both male and female) with consistently lower blood glucose levels than controls. It isn’t clear whether this is a positive alteration, however, as too low a blood glucose level can hamper growth and development.

Lesson? The occasional skipped meal, or series of meals, doesn’t just affect your health (in a mostly positive way), but the health of your offspring. Whether lower blood glucose is a good or a bad thing is conditional.

Pregnant women are advised to increase their intake of folate and other vitamins to prevent birth defects and make up for a substandard diet. This is generally good advice, but there is such a thing as “too many vitamins.” In one study, pregnant mice fed a high-folate diet (10 times the normal amount) had offspring with an epigenetically enhanced propensity for obesity unless they were weaned on a similarly high-folate diet. Another study found similar obesogenic epigenetic changes in male offspring of rats taking ten times the normal amount of a multivitamin.

Lesson? Get most of your nutrients from food whenever possible, and don’t overdo the prenatals (also, make sure you take folate, not folic acid).

In pregnant mice on an imbalanced diet (wildly variant ratios of folic acid and B vitamins), maternal omega-3 intake ameliorated some of the negative epigenetic effects normally caused by the nutrient imbalance.

Lesson? Get your omega-3s.

Even the source of maternal dietary protein during gestation seems to affect gene expression in the offspring. In pregnant mice given soy as a protein source, offspring were fatter and had elevated insulin when compared to offspring from casein-fed mice, an effect mediated by an increase in gene expression in the area of the brain that controls food intake.

Lesson? Skip the soy protein shakes.

Some pregnant women are advised to restrict dietary protein. In animal studies, this appears to have negative epigenetic effects on the fetus, including the “programming of hypertension.”

Lesson? Eat protein to satiety when pregnant. 

Maternal choline affects the expression of cortisol regulation in the fetus. This likely explains why mothers with a high intake of choline during pregnancy have kids who appear to be protected against stress-related disorders through epigenetic factors.

Lesson? Eat your liver and egg yolks.


Maternal (and paternal) stress is one of the largest area of study in epigenetics, probably the largest besides nutrition.

Using a mouse model of prenatal stress, researchers were able to epigenetically trigger neurological and psychiatric disease states in the offspring. Prenatal stress induced microRNA regulation at sites in the fetus that affect and/or induce multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, brain inflammation, and bipolar affective disorder.

Lesson? It’s not like a traffic jam in the 2nd trimester is going to give your kid schizophrenia, but it does illustrate the worst-case scenarios associated with prenatal stress.

Even the mom’s mood during pregnancy exerts an epigenetic influence on the outcome of the pregnancy. If a mom was depressed or anxious during the 3rd trimester, her offspring was more likely to have altered cortisol regulation, including increased cortisol responses to stress at three months.

Lesson? Relax, kick your feet up, and try not to let daily stressors consume you during pregnancy. Easier said than done, I know. Also, don’t let the stuff from the previous section – what you’re eating – turn you into a ball of stress. Eating anything can be hard when you’re pregnant. Just make the best choices you can, and make your “bad” choices better.

Six weeks of chronic stress were enough to alter the microRNA (a regulator of gene expression) of sperm in male mice, whether the stress occurred in adulthood or childhood. When those mice later bred, they sired pups with dysfunctional stress responses reminiscent of neuropsychiatric disease. Another stressed out mouse dad study had similar results: altered stress responses in the offspring.

Lesson? Stress matters for dads, their sperm, and their offspring, too. Not just the moms are vulnerable.

Other factors

Research into the prenatal or preconceptional epigenetic effects of other lifestyle factors is limited, but we can still make some predictions. Let’s take a look.

Exercise – One recent study found that exercise can affect the quality of sperm and upregulate gene expression across generations. Both maternal and paternal exercise, for example, improve memory and spatial learning in the offspring (paternal exercise only seems to benefit male offspring, but dads should probably still work out just to be on the safe side). A word of caution: though exercise is generally “a good thing” for your offspring, remember how vulnerable the fetus is to maternal stress. Don’t do too much!

Sleep – We know that melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) is an important player in “fetal programming,” and a recent study found that rats who were sleep deprived during gestation produced offspring with reduced antioxidant activities and/or altered homocysteine levels, so sleep clearly plays an important role in fetal epigenetics.

Sun – While there’s nothing that explicitly looks at the effect of sunlight exposure on fetal development, there are links between maternal vitamin D levels – a fair proxy for sunlight – and epigenetic regulation of fetal bone development and osteoporosis later in life.

Dirt – “Maternal exposure to animal sheds” and other farm environments during pregnancy might actually make the offspring more resistant to allergies right out of the womb.

Much of this is still up in the air, of course. We haven’t identified every lifestyle factor that triggers epigenetic changes in offspring, nor will we (likely) ever. But most of the evidence that we do have suggests that being healthy is good for our offspring and being unhealthy is bad for them. So, being an obese dad or mom? Not so good for the kids and grandkids. Being a healthy weight mom or dad? Probably good for the kids and grandkids. Smoking during pregnancy? Bad. Going for nature walks during pregnancy? Probably good. Getting a good 8-10 hours of sleep while pregnant? Good. Staying up late watching bad TV with a kid in your belly? Not so great, most likely. Playing? Good. Even if there isn’t a study for everything, it’s already been shown that most lifestyle modifications affect us on the epigenetic level. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that they’re also affecting our children on the epigenetic level.

Some of you may find this a bit scary. You may even feel helpless, as if decisions were made concerning your longterm health before you were born, or even before your parents were born. For my money? It’s the opposite. It’s empowering, because knowledge truly is power, and now you have the power to not just transform your own health, but also the health of your unborn progeny’s progeny. That may sound like a lot of responsibility – and it is – but it’s not anything you aren’t already doing for yourself. Just stick to what you know works, eat right, stay active, avoid unnecessary stress, get plenty of sleep, get away from the city now and again, laugh everyday, give and get massages, walk a lot, lift heavy things, eat lots of plants and animals, and all that epigenetic stuff will take care of itself.

Most importantly, remember that you have just as much power to create lasting health benefits in your children with the choices you make. It’s not just about avoiding unhealthy outcomes, but creating healthy ones!

Anyway, that’s it for today. It was a long but important one; thanks for sticking around. Leave your thoughts, questions, concerns in the comment section, as well as any other bits of evidence you’ve found that shows how we can affect our offspring.

Thanks again!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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108 thoughts on “You Are What Your Mother and Father (and Grandmothers and Grandfathers) Ate”

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    1. Indeed.

      Society may be screwed, but our bloodlines as primal/paleo/health-conscious folks may be the fittest within “survival of the fittest” in the end of it all.

  1. Thank you for this post, Mark! I will definitely save it for future reference. Luckily, I have not had children yet but plan on it in the near future. This will be a great help.

  2. It’s not the first time I see liver as a recommended food for pregnancy. While I am totally for organ meats and liver in particular, this is confusing me.
    Liver is a (or probably I should say “the”) source for Vitamin A, which happens to be tied to teratogenesis (birth defects) when the level of toxicity is reached. Or probably I am missing something?

    1. I don’t think the recommendation is “eat nothing but liver when pregnant”, nor is it to seek out exotic (polar bear, arctic fox) livers. Any warning that includes language about “when the level of toxicity is reached” implies someone is overdoing it.

    2. If you like Weston A Price, they say that their is no practical level of toxicity for vitamin A IF you combine it with at least a tenth of D. So get your ridiculous amounts of A from liver, just make sure you get a tenth that amount of D.

      1. And vice versa as well—adequate A protects against D toxicity…

        Interestingly, D may be the greater (relative, of course) danger when supplemented, since the body can shut it’s D synthesis down at an adequate amount when it’s getting it from the sun, but can’t stop absorbtion when getting it dietarily…

        Anyway, I doubt too many of us are in danger of toxicity from either. I’ll go home and have my ramekin of pate…

        1. Is the pate home made or purchased? What kind is it? Just curious. I make them. If I am at a nice restaurant that does charcuterie really well then I order it. Same with bone marrow and offal. Eye rolling good.

        2. Question for the pâté fans here from an offal noob: how do you recommend serving it, especially to those trying to develop a taste for it? I recall it being offered on toast or crackers, and I doubt you’re consuming it that way. I’m also looking for good recipes for it.


        3. I made pate a while back and served it on lightly grilled eggplant rounds with roasted garlic. It was divine.

          In general my replacement for crackers are either squash slices or eggplant slices…or spoons

        4. odd that I can’t reply directly to all of you, but anyhoo–

          Yes, I make it–liver, onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, lots o butter, white wine or cognac so far, I’d love to try some whiskey, just haven’t gotten around to it yet—

          Yes, I love charcuterie and offal restaurants—notably porchetta di testa, rillettes of any critter, and lardo…..mmmmmm

          I usually consume the pate with carrot sticks, or something to that effect, and one of my favorite snacks is a lettuce cup filled with pate and sauerkraut. I make that too–have had my current culture rollin for a couple months now!

          Cheers to all!

        5. and @inquisitive: Procedure:

          Saute ~2/3-1 lb of cut up liver, a diced medium onion, 3-4 cloves of garlic, ~Tbs each of rosemary and thyme (I think I do more, though), and salt and pepper in a 3rd of a stick of butter till the onion is sweated/translucent. Then add a half cup wine let the alcohol cook off the alcohol for a few minutes, turn the heat down, cover, and let it cook for a few more minutes. Then kill the heat, leave it covered for another 5minutes. By this point the wine should pretty much be absorbed. dump the whole thing in a food processor, pulse for a bit, then run until very smooth. bit by bit, add the remaining butter from the stick while the food processor is running. wait till it’s all melted and smooth and add to ramekins. cover with plastic wrap with the plastic touching the surface (like guac) so the liver doesn’t do funny color things. you can freeze it or just chill it till it’s semi solid. yummy.

        6. easiest way to substitute a cracker is using cucumber slices. Works well with pate and most other spreads/salades usually served on crackers (egg salad, salmon spread, celery spread…) and sliced egg, sausage, cheese, smoked salmon…convenient hack to paleolise party snacks.
          Also, those tiny cans of pate are my new favorite bringalong snack for summer festivals and similar outings, they’re compact and don’t go off in hot weather. My non-paleo friends happily snacked on the pate-smeared cucumber slices with me. Win 🙂

  3. This is fascinating. I get that this might lead some people to a feeling of helplessness, but I think its very empowering. knowing its not just all about me, but that my decisions affect future generations- i mean, whats more motivating to stay healthy and active than that?

    1. Count me as one who thinks this type of focus leads to powerlessness.

      I’m not discounting for a moment that nutrition and stress could have a profound impact on the long term health of a child.

      However, too much focus on it simply leads to paranoia in pregnant women and victim thinking in everyone else. There are some stressors out of our control and yeah, they are going to happen in and around pregnancy. Young families, by definition, are usually strapped financially if nothing else.

      To say “I’m sick (or fat) or whatever because Mom refused to eat well for 9 months 2,3,4,or 5 or decades ago” is only helpful as a stop off to a solution. Unfortunately, too many people cling to it as an excuse to not do anything.

      One of our richest human inheritances is that of the survivor. We all carry the genes that are the survivors of both stressful circumstances and less than ideal nutrition.

      Because of that, we absolutely thrive when we lower our stress and eat optimally. The immediate personal rewards in eating right are far richer than “gosh I need to protect my grandchildren”. I eat right because I feel better and as a good example to my children. Everything else is out of my control or in the past.

      1. I agree that the topic of epigenetics can lead to parent-blaming in general, which is unfortunate since chance plays a pretty large role as well.

        I hail from a long line of overworked, stressed out, unhealthy poor people, and my sister and I turned out just fine. My overweight, adopted father had a teen mom and a chainsmoking biological father, and my mother was a sugar-addicted stress ball who had consumed a horrific diet of wonderbread type foods her entire life. She ended up homeless while pregnant with me and had gestational diabetes while pregnant with my little sister. Continuing the cycle, my sis and I ate the absolute worst foods ever (chef boyardee, mountain dew) while growing up and now we eat very well as educated adults.

        We were model students and talented musicians as kids. We’re well-adjusted adults who don’t suffer from health or weight issues. We eat primally to optimize our lives, not survive.

        My point is not that we’re special, but that humans are adaptable and unique and even if circumstances are completely out of your control, or you lack the education to eat adequately, you are probably not doing irreparable harm to your child.

        Of course, there’s no harm in trying to optimize.

    1. How many young people do you know who care about much beyond the next 5 minutes when they make decisions? High time preference is virtually the hallmark of youth.

      1. I’m 24, a mom, and I care about what I eat for my own health and the health of my children. I care about how my own actions take a toll on the environment. I think things through before I do them. I make conscious decisions.

        Unfortunately I have to agree that I’m just one of very few of our youth that cares enough not to live a completely selfish lifestyle. My attempts at educating others seem to fall upon deaf ears.

      2. If young people said that about older people, we’d be called ageist.

        Young people today are famous for being conscientious, concerned for the future, cautious about risk, empathetic with one another, and skeptical about the advice of experts. All very promising things. Don’t knock all younger people by a few high school kids you happen to know.

        I had my first child at 24 (he is three now) and you’d better believe I was reading every single thing I could about how to do best by him. Of course, the whole $400 a month debt payment, the hour long commute, the stressful job, my husband’s lost job, and the inability (between poverty and exhaustion) to prepare the healthful food I wanted, was definitely a stressor. Maybe it’s for the best that this article wasn’t out there then for me to read! I was an anxious, depressed, ragey mess the whole time, and what do you know, he is by far my more anxious child.

        Oh well. When you know better, and have more opportunities, you do better.

  4. I recently just had a baby and was dealing with a traumatic experience. I always wonder what effect that will have on my baby! Thanks for this post!

    1. Same. Have never been as acutely stressed or eaten as badly as when I was pregnant. Now I’m even more stressed about that! But at least if I have another baby I will not be in the same circumstances.

      1. Don’t be.

        I posted up above, but we’re all survivors. If you look back and thought, I did my best in a stressful circumstance, it’s enough. As far as I can tell, babies are somewhat parasitic beings (really) and tend to sap their mother’s nutritional base if the immediate food stuffs are less than ideal. (I’ve seen young women not eating right who look, well aged too fast, after multiple pregnancies.) If everyone seems in good health now, do what you can right now to improve everyone’s nutrition and let it go. I’ve heard rumors that the past is pretty well unchangable. 😉

  5. Thank you so much for writing about this important and often ignored subject.
    It will empower even people saddled with detrimental epigenetic changes to be able to live better, healthier, more satisfying lives. Knowledge is the key, and there is always something that can be done.

  6. that was an excellent read. all of your blog post are always a good read BUT this one tops them all.

  7. Weston Price pretty much figured this stuff out in the 30’s in his world class book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”.
    With the Conventional Wisdom still going strong, looks like the world will be in difficult shape for generations to come. On some level I think we are devolving. “Are we not men, no, we are DEVO”

        1. Hat tip to the Underground Wellness “Real Food Summit”. That is where I learned about Pottenger’s Prophecy. The UW Paleo Summit too is great too. I learned a lot between those two summits. Worth every cent. Can anyone comment on UW’s latest summit, “Sexy Back Summit”?

  8. it’s all about the children. they are the ones that will carry our species forward and to the future.

  9. We are currently trying to get pregnant. I’ve already been following nearly all of this advice (minus the organ meats – how do you cook that??). This article is empowering and encouraging, helping to underscore how important all of these things really are.

    To put it in perspective, my OB-GYN scoffed at these ideas. Glad to know I’m not the only one that things healthy pregnancy is more than just taking a pre-natal vitamin.

  10. This is a very interesting post. Stress on the mother during pregnancies having an effect on grandchildren seems to be logical given the fetal development. Most people just don’t think that far out in front of them. Just one more reason to be healthy in life, especially during pregnancy.

  11. I was born in 1961. Back then, expecting mothers were told to not gain more than 15 lbs, so my mother drank a lot of coffee and smoked cigarettes, eating only one small meal a day. All three of her kids have weight problems! Coincidence???? hmmmm.

    Great article Mark, I only wish I knew all this stuff 30 years ago before my kids were born.

    1. Or since then processed carbohydrates have become so cheap that even the poor can eat volumes of nothing good for you. 🙁

  12. You know, there were some old folklores that said that if a pregnant woman saw or did X, or if someone was exposed to such and such a thing, their children would end up suffering/being Y. I’m wondering if these folklores were outgrowths / rationalization of some of these observations above, experienced within a social setting instead of a laboratory one.


  13. Back when I had my blog, I used to say frequently that we are all eating for three: ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren yet to be born. Why the grandchildren? We are programming their eggs or sperm as well as their parent’s.

    This is why so many older Boomers (born after the Depression) are living such active, vibrant lives today compared to those born later–genetic wealth that was transferred through the epigenome.

    What are we transferring through our epigenome TODAY? Addiction to fast food, carbs, starch, sugars, and electronic convenience–none of which results in a healthy future genome!

    I also used to say on my blog that we can wipe out cancer in as little as 3 generations if we all start eating cleaner, exercising more efficiently, and teaching our children to do the same. Nowadays, it isn’t just cancer we can wipe out–ALL CHRONIC DISEASE can be wiped out!

    1. Still think this being anything more than an influences is dubious at best. Clearly constitution and good nutrition encourage the passing of genes.

      However, what is being assigned to nutrition could easily be simply expectations.

      For the WWII generation, leisure time in old age meant you were wealthy. They grew up in world transitioning from no indoor plumbing, electricity, etc, etc to our modern one. To make to 65 was a feat, to not have to work at that age, a small miracle.

      Boomers grew up in a different world, our modern one where couch potato mode is easy for practically anyone. Active Boomers into retirement could have just as much to do with expectations as it did with passing on a base set of nutrition.

      My grandmother lived through the Depression, was a full head shorter than me, and wore a coat in July to try to disguise she was pregnant. Me thinks she was hardly passing on “optimal” nutrition to my father, an early Boomer.

      And I’m far healthier than my Mother who also had a serious allergy to exercise and fell for high sugar, er “low fat” diet when it became popular.

      The bottom line is that are survivors – we’ll weather the storm of processed carbs, too. 😉

  14. Great post. I listened to a podcast from “Stuff to Blow the Mind” that was on epigenetics that was also very informative. Worth a listen for anyone who wants more information on the subject!

  15. Fantastic post! Some people could really care less about their own health, but with all the evidence that taking care of themselves will cause their children to be healthier and happier will go along way to convince more people to follow this way of living.

    Thanks Mark, I will be spreading this post around!

  16. Yet another interesting article. In short: Everything that’s good for humans who are already living is also good for our offspring. Primal through and through.

    Thanks, Mark!

  17. I’ve heard Sally Fallon speak about this on youtube, and the first half of the book “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food” by Catherine Shanahan MD, is all about this subject. (The second half is on the food you should eat.) Shanahan says you can improve the physical characteristics and health of your children and their children by what you eat now. It’s not enough for the expectant mom to eat well, she and the father need to eat well months (or years) before the first child is born. She also talks about the need to space children far enough apart so the mother’s body has time to rebuild her nutrition, thus avoiding Second Sibling Syndrome which can causes physical changes when children come too close together. Certainly it’s a lesson to eat the best you can before and during child-bearing years. I want my adult kids to read the book now before they start their families.

    1. I recall an Underground Wellness podcast that touched on the topic of spacing out of kids naturally via nursing. Something like, toddlers were traditionally nursed until 3 yrs old or so, not fully nursed as they ate foods too, more like supplemented. Point being is the hormonal response on the nursing woman aided as a natural pregnancy deterrent. I do not remember who was the podcast speaker.

      1. “Point being is the hormonal response on the nursing woman aided as a natural pregnancy deterrent.”

        Not always. Even using contraception (barrier method) while nursing my firstborn as much as he wanted, my second was conceived when my first was 15 months old.

        1. My period came back almost always at about 12-14 months, for each my 3 children. Breastfeeding seem to offer protection until then, once my period returned however, no amount of nursing changed the cycles.

          I suspect breastfeeding would offer more protection if the Mother’s food supply was very uncertain past the first year. (Very low body fat also triggers amenorrhea.) In an abundance of food however, I do see how babies spaced about 2 years apart might be more optimal from the body’s point of view.

        2. I would love to see a study on lactational amenorrhea in full paleo mothers. Average time of amenorrhea in hunter-gatherer mothers is 3-4 years, based on several tribes surveyed, while Western women who practice ecological breastfeeding (no bottles, no pacifiers, no separation, cosleeping, etc.) average 15 months. And we know, of course, that the advent of farming led to a population boom. Could it be that a steady supply of carbs changes the hormonal triggers somewhat? Or is it just the amount of fat a Western woman carries compared to a tribal one?

          Then again, it could have to do with our culture. No matter how “natural” we are, it is very difficult to parent the way our ancestors did within Western culture. There’s always this pressure to get our babies sleeping through the night / spacing out their feedings / whatever.

  18. Really interesting… but now I fear my kids will have yet another thing to blame me for! LOL

    1. Equally you can blame your mother and she hers and so on back in time…
      I think we need to think of the positives and not worry too much about everything we did wrong or our parents did wrong. My grandparents lived through WW2. Had to had have some effect, through no fault of their own.

  19. Sometimes I wonder what percentage of the increased obesity in the country right now is due to the number of pregnant women who were counseled to gain only a very minimum amount of weight while pregnant. Obese women are (or were, a decade ago when I was pregnant) counseled to gain even less weight than other women. Makes you wonder if their children are then even more likely to be obese, with two strikes against them (obese mother + mother who restricted calories while pregnant). A “wicked problem” indeed.

  20. This is also all covered in the book Dave Asprey (Bulletproof coffee guy) wrote with his wife, Lana (an MD, I believe), “Building a Better Baby”, but he also delves into the tons of environmental factors that affect baby development during pregnancy. I was in my third trimester when I read it and, frankly, was overwhelmed by the information – criminy! it was information overload on all the things that you should not be doing, eating, drinking, touching or breathing…I could not live in a BPA free plastic bubble so I was feeling massive parental guilt and the little bugger wasn’t even born yet (and what happens when you spend all this time iand energy building the best gentically perdisposed baby ever and they turnmn out to be an average fallible/broken human being – I’ll see you both in my office that’s what).

    As a child and family clinical psychologist, it sounds alot like the old nature-nuture debate with a heavy emphasis on nature, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath and completely dismiss nurture (which I guess could be argued is the emphasis on the “stress” part). I do firmly believe there is something to this though, as anecdotally, I was in grad school, taking comps and working as a clinical intern 3 days a week 30+ miles from my house and newly married when I was pregnant with my oldest child = stress ball and I’m sure that contributed to him being a “high-need”/difficult to soothe infant who in grade school developed ADHD.

    I was pregnant with my third child when our family was part-time primal and she was the best baby until recently (but maybe that’s just because she’s 2 now) and fully primal with our littlest guy (now 6 months) and he is our “urban myth” baby bc I had no idea babies could be so laid back and easy going. I can actually put him down in his crib awake and he gets himself to sleep! Crazy! And I was a stress ball while pregnant with him 2. Parenting is hard enough in the guilt/fear/anxiety departments w/out epigenetics freaking you out about every little thing you ate/didn’t eat when pregnant. So I thank and applaud Mark S. for his ending this post with the assurance/encouragement about just being primal/keep on keeping on and most of this stuff will work itself out in the long run. Or feel free to make an apt. if you are anywhere near northwest Missouri.

    1. I think of all the women who get the baby off the breast ASAP and onto soy milk…yeah, that’s the ticket!

  21. Can you link to the bullied mouse father study? I’d like to read it, and I’m not having much luck searching.

    Great article.

  22. In our natural child birth classes (Bradley method) we teach and practice relaxation, nutrition (not quite primal, but making sure to include protein, healthy fats, veggies, eggs, etc.), and exercise. Primarily to make the mother and child healthy and strong for the birthing, and for relaxation for pain relief.

    Good to know that this is also helpful to optimize gene expression as well!

      1. What? No replies to this yet?
        I chuckled out loud at work, it’s always funny to imagine babies making oil.

  23. Thank you for this information. My son (from a different mother) is showing signs of stress as he grows. I thought it was from when he was in the womb as well as his short life before he came to us. Perhaps part of what he suffers from is also from his parents/grandparents as well. Poor little guy! However, he does his best to eat cleaner and we now are giving him GABA to help his brain, seems to be working. Hardly any nightmares anymore and he can go through a morning / afternoon without meltdowns, still has some ups and downs if he doesn’t eat on time but not as horrific as before.
    My parents both went through the “Great Depression” and had food shortages to deal with as they grew up as did we growing up “poor” even though we grew our food and got bones from the butcher to make soup with. Every one of my sisters turned out obese….. interesting.

  24. dont forget the importance of breastfeeding after the baby is born!

  25. Okay, I love this blog (never miss it), but the Sept. 11 attacks didn’t just happen to New York. Yes, the overwhelming numbers were in NY and my intention is not to dishonor those lives (or their families). But, as a Washingtonian working on that fateful day just a block from the White House, I’ve got to say that was traumatic. I was 2 months pregnant, not able to leave the city (the police closed all the bridges across the Potomac), not sure whether to leave the building and walk (what about a chemical threat? we just didn’t know at the time.) False reports of a bomb at the State Dept., false reports of a terrorist plane out by Dulles airport (near my home) and on its way to DC, etc. All I could think was I had to protect my baby, so I sat in the basement of the building and watched the terror unfold on tv. What if the plane that hit the Pentagon had hit the White House instead? What if the brave Americans who downed the plane in Pennsylvania had been too paralyzed with fear to act? President Bush made everyone go back to work the next day (no federal closures), so we sat, shell-shocked, at our desks. A week later I went to NY for a funeral (funeral procession after funeral procession, a devastating sight), then a week after that my baby’s heart stopped beating.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    1. What a horrible experience for you. I’m so sorry for your loss. It *does* underscore the connection, though, and gives us all something to consider.

    2. I am so sorry Kim. It was a tragic time and you, although surviving, bore a horrible load to carry with you as move through your life. A sad story but well told. I’m glad you were able to share such a personal experience with us.

    3. I am so sorry that you lost your baby … and I am sure that the circumstances was probably not a coincidence. I feel honored that you were able to share this tragedy with us. That day was horrible for ALL of us, all the way around.

  26. Wow, do I wish I had a time machine! My boys are 3 and 5 and I was obese during both pregnancies. I ate the SAD diet then, and to top it off ate all sorts of junk during both pregnancies, because well why not? Cravings, right? It’s expected right? Plus I had an extremely high stress job during both pregnancies, and was in grad school during both. Plus I never exercised and to top it off spent the last trimester on bed-rest for high blood pressure during both pregnancies. At least I never had diabetes…. Normally these articles brighten my mood but today I feel like the world’s worst mother (and future grandmother). {end of self-pity}

    1. You really shouldn’t. We’re all on our own journey and our babies are born at a certain time within it. Generally, we’re all doing our best given our education, experiences, and resources.

      This is why I think articles like this need to be softened with more positives. Yes, what you ate had an influence on your child, certainly. But your child was also taking what they needed right from your reserves. If may make a major link to religion – I don’t really think God leaves this stuff up to shlubs like us unless the circumstances become extreme.

      At any rate, our base constitution is clearly dominated by luck, some of which is influenced by pre-natal nutrition but another portion is simply the grab bag of genes that we’re given. Personally, I think the best way to be an awesome Mother is to simply focus on the gift of your children, right now as they are.

    2. If you had known then, what you know now, would you have done things differently? If so, then why beat yourself up for what you didn’t know?

      Did I cause my son’s Asperger like behavior by feeding him wheat? Could he have had faster progress to normality without wheat? Maybe. He does seem to do better without it. Did I know that wheat may be an issue? Not a chance. What is, is, and I can only change things going forward. I am not going to blame myself for what I didn’t know. I always try to do the best I can with what I know…I have no time machine, and don’t know that I would want one after all the science fiction I have read!

  27. I didn’t think of this before, that the decisions we are making and the breakdown of human health recently is actually affecting us even in future generations. It injects an air of desperate urgency to get our lifestyles in line again before it’s too late. Interesting and scary at the same time.

  28. I often wonder about how the stress my daughter encountered when she was in the womb affected her. We went through the Northridge earthquake (living quite close in North Hollywood) when I was 5 months pregnant with her and that was extremely stressful – waking up being tossed in mid-air (couldn’t even get out of bed). Then at 6 1/2 months pregnant, I had a ruptured appendix, had to have surgery and then developed an infection while in the hospital which was treated with Vancomycin. She was the type of baby who wouldn’t sleep and would scream for hours. We tried everything with her and found that we had to supplement with formula just to calm her down. When I had my son, I was dumbfounded because he slept so much. I just couldn’t fathom a baby who slept like he did.

    1. None my pregnancies had any particular stresses than then the normal ones. My first son was exactly like you describe. We didn’t have to resort to formula, but it was close. My daughter, the 2nd child, would just fall asleep.

      Don’t get me wrong – stress is not ideal for a developing baby or may I add, a new mother to be. It may have had some influence on her personality. But then again, it may have less influence than rats researchers might let on. 😉

  29. Fascinating article. Especially the fact that what we eat and what we do can affect not only our own children but also our grandchildren as well!

    I wish I had known this stuff before my kids were born..

  30. I don’t understand the study where the grandfathers were starving as kids (or underfed because of famine) and that had a positive effect on their grandchildren. That is counter-intuitive and wasn’t explained well in the article. WHY was this the case? And what are the implications for modern Americans who aren’t exposed to such scarcity?

    1. *whispers softly* Because humans are complex creatures, the result of their environment and their nature. I can easily imagine a scenario where boy survivors of famine work hard as adults and setup their children with more resources then they experienced as children. We really aren’t all prisoners of what our grandmothers did or did not eat. (At least I don’t think so..)

  31. My mum always blames my brothers health issues on the stress she experienced while she was pregnant. He has Lupus, Epilepsy, Aspergers, Kidney Failure and more. While he was in the womb, mum had huge dramas with a family member who was in trouble with the law and sneaking into her house to hide.

    Interesting that people instinctively know this stuff.

  32. Forgive me if this has already been mentioned, as I haven’t read everything. But, maybe part of the rise in obesity in the 70s had to do with the stick thin models and the ideal to NOT gain any weight during pregnancy. Have to wonder.

    1. Not gaining weight during pregnancy is an old idea that spans more than just our modern era. What do you think Victorians, who wore corsets that took their breath away under normal circumstances, would have thought about gaining weight during pregnancy?

      I mentioned above, but my Grandmother wore a coat in July 1948 because she didn’t want anyone to see her pregnant belly. I think she was worried about weight gain, too.

      And do we really think that Paleo woman in “the bush” that is barely scavenging enough food but births a health baby anyway was really setting up her grandchildren for failure?

      No, the absolute 2 biggest changes since the 70’s are: low fat as the orthodox “healthy” diet choice and the lowering of prices on sugary foods. Sodas were a treat when I was young child because they were expensive. (Anyone remember getting kool-aid as a cheap substitute?) I can’t even imagine anyone using that as an excuse now.

      1. “What do you think Victorians, who wore corsets that took their breath away under normal circumstances, would have thought about gaining weight during pregnancy?”

        I think you’d find they thought weight-gain during pregnancy was perfectly normal and expected. Pregnant Victorians were just not to be seen in public! They *retired* from public view until after the birth. (Granted, this was the upper classes, but everyone aspired to be like them.) Even the Queen stayed out of view while preggo! Your grandmother wore a coat because (of the idea that) the public seeing her pregnant belly “knew what she had been doing” — and the Victorians had the weirdest, most twisted ideas about sex!! To “advertise” that you’d been having sex (i.e., got knocked up) was to advertise that you actually HAD lady-parts and, even worse, had been using them! HORRORS! (Did I mention “twisted”?!)

  33. “In one study, pregnant mice fed a high-folate diet (10 times the normal amount)”

    I’m wondering what form of ‘folate’ was used in this study. Often ‘folate’ is used interchangeably with ‘folic acid’. This question is relevant to me as I recently lost a pregnancy due to a neural tube defect (even though I was following Weston A Price diet). I was advised to take 5mg ‘folate’ (much more than the daily rec.) before conceiving again as this is supposed to lower the risk of neural tube defects. I am taking methyfolate not folic acid, do both forms have the same negative epigenetic effects on offspring, or is only the ‘folic acid’ bad?

  34. I read Kate Shanahan’s “Deep Genetics” last fall. I’d never heard of epigenetics before, but I was fascinated. While thinking too much about every bite during pregnancy would be a major stressor, the positive side of this is realizing that we CAN help out our children and grandchildren, and not just by trying to teach them primal eating. I’m 38 weeks pregnant, and overall, this has been my easiest pregnancy. I’ve stayed away from sugar and processed crud, gone very low on grains (hard to go off them completely when my husband still eats them), had liver about once a week, etc. Any day now, we will see the results.

  35. Another awesome post, Mark.

    Well, I was gonna go into how Weston A. Price discovered much of this almost a century ago, but I see I’ve been beaten to the punch. Pretty amazing, though, how spot on he was and how little respect he’s gotten over the years.

    I guess at this point the score is:

    Original thinkers: 1 million
    Conventional Wisdom: 3

    I might be giving CW a little too much credit 😉

  36. Fascinating. I also didn’t quite get why it seemed to be good for the offspring of the Swedes that experienced famine.

  37. Hi Mark. Excellent blog and posting today, as always. A daily reader for the last 12 months and this is my first comment. Always read through the comments but don’t feel I have much too add. But, there will obviously be a lot of concern about the emotions that bringing children up in this world and the guilt that we haven’t done our best. We cant go back and change the past, and you can detect that in some of the postings.
    As yet though nobody has mentioned the following: If we can adopt a primal lifestyle with our young children we can reprogram their genes back. That’s the essence of the primal blueprint. As you mentioned you cant change the hardware, but you can rewrite the programming. So if like me you brought 4 children into this world following CW, all the more reasons to reprogram their genes back for their children/grandchilds sake. Guilt can only be felt if parents continue with CW, especially in pre-pubescent children. We have the knowledge/research NOW. Make the change NOW. As noted on a previous post. It is survival of the fittest.
    P>S Please don’t stop(not that I’ve heard you are) continuing this work. I can honestly say you are my role model. Over the last 12 months of following your lifestyle, I am at 40 yrs (and therefore my wife and 4 young children. 2,4,6,9 yrs) in the best physical and mental health ever. And I needed a lot of reprogram after being dragged up by my parents!! Good health to you and your family Mark.

  38. Interesting stuff, but…
    I simply cannot condone the incessant bullying of innocent mice.

  39. So happy to read this post. My fiance and I totally have baby fever right now, although I did just get my IUD replaced yesterday, because we do want to wait a couple more years and get some travelling in first 🙂

    I will admit that besides wanting to have visible abs, one of the main reasons I make the healthiest choices I can every day is so that I can get myself ready and do everything possible to make the awesomest little cuddle-bug ever!

    I’m also really happy to say that the Mr is on the same Primal page as I am.. totally forwarded him this article.

    Baby fever was at 103 degrees F.

    Current reading: 104 degrees F.

    Haha!! **Munching walnuts.**

  40. Ugh. This is the most depressing thing I’ve read all week. I was severely mentally ill during my first pregnancy and I ate like crap. I was young and hanging on (it was a miracle that both the baby and I survived) and didn’t know anything about nutrition. For years I had maternal guilt about that pregnancy and this post was triggered that old guilt like taking a stab to the gut. I wish I could go back and do things differently but I can’t. My only hope is that my hope doesn’t rest entirely in science or myself. I also have an amazing 13 year old now who I love with every cell of my being. I think there is something to be said about love conquering mistakes of the past. My son is a good example. Anyway I hope others find this article helpful. Maternal guilt stinks.

  41. I’ve used this evolutionary argument, then heard the response (more than once) that we are evolving. So I guess we physically evolve over a generation now.

  42. Good read, but gives me a lot of regret about my pregnancies. I was going through a divorce during my first (stress and fear, all the time), and I was working a catastrophe (insurance perspective) while pregnant with my second son, who was born 11 weeks early due to a placental abruption.

    At least this will give me the knowledge to help out the grandbabies someday.

  43. I think this is so empowering! We can be better than our genes, and on top of that, we have all these success stories that prove that it’s never too late to optimize our gene expression. I hardly think that should be depressing for new parents or women who are already pregnant.

    I actually read this article out loud to my husband, who always has a healthy skepticism for this sort of stuff. His response was, “This makes evolution make sense,” because without your environment influencing your gene expression, why would evolution happen at all?

    Stress management and sleep are the two things I struggle with. I definitely inherited my “obsessive” personality, but I married a laid-back guy who is able to temper that, and I’m discovering (again) the benefits of yoga. The sleep thing is just because there always seems to be something better to do than sleep, and right now I seem to need a lot. Baby steps.

  44. I totally get this, but at 38 weeks pregnant, I was literally unable to eat primally during this pregnancy. I was ‘pretty’ primal for a year before I got pregnant, then got pregnant and had huge (!) food revulsion issues (the biggest ones were my previous ‘go to’ foods: meat (worst is/was red meat, which is by far my favorite protein source in general), spinach, eggs). I have been pretty much unable to stomach any of this food the whole time. I am doing the best I can by replacing it with dairy (which I’ve never had a problem with and which my body isn’t repulsed by), but generally the only way to get other types of protein into my body has been by pairing it with carbs (doing my best to at least go towards quinoa, etc.). I’m basically ‘hiding’ the good stuff to trick my body into taking it. I had planned to eat super-healthly (i.e., my ‘pretty’ primal) based on other similar pieces of information, but eventually decided the significant stress of trying to force food down (making myself ill) wasn’t worth the trade-off. Unfortunately, I’ll never know if that was the right choice.

    Has anyone else had a similar issue?

  45. Great post but it misses multigenerational damage caused by pharmaceuticals. Prenatal drugs can impair germline reprogramming, forever corrupting the development of the third generation.

    Nutrition is small change compared to what drugs do to our genes. Pharmaceuticals can epigenetically butcher our sperm and egg, silently altering the very essence of humans.

  46. During my pregnancy I experienced more stress than was necessary. I made choices such as going BPA-free, eating organic, etc. and I was constantly being criticized for it. It pissed me off, thus increasing my stress levels. Halfway through my pregnancy, BPA was banned from baby bottles and sippy cups, but people are still ignorant to my choices, which I have continued beyond being pregnant. It’s difficult not to be stressed out when pregnant because on top of everything you’re dealing with as a pregnant woman and the stresses of normal life, you have others preaching to you constantly about…well, everything.

    Moral of the story, don’t criticize the choices others make when they’re trying to be HEALTHY. Rude.

  47. A lot of this information is taken directly from a documentary I saw on BBC Horizon about epigenetics. It really is fascinating and scary stuff. If I knew more about it before I got pregnant I would have really tried to watch my stress levels during pregnancy. It would be nice if you mentioned the sources somewhere for this info…or maybe I missed it.

  48. Excellent post. I am just seeing it now because the past few weeks my time was occupied by an excellent course called Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression that was offered on the website. For those of you who might be interested in learning about the mechanisms of epigenetics, I highly recommend this course. It is very detailed as to what is happening at the molecular and cellular level, but the instructor was excellent, explained the concepts well, and built up the information presented in a very well organized and systematic matter. Some of the examples in this post were covered in the course, such as the Overkalix, Sweden studies, studies on the effect of famine during pregnancy, the effect of maternal stress during pregnancy on offspring stress responses, effect of maternal diet on gene expression in offspring, paternal epigenetic effects, effects on third generation offspring through effects on the development of eggs and sperm during fetal development, etc. The course will be offered again sometime next spring.