Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy to improve metabolic health in the children of obese mothers

Dr Benjamin Albert
University of Auckland

In 2017, Cure Kids collaborated on a joint, contestable funding round with The National Science Challenge, A Better Start. The aim of the partnership was to fund high-quality, mission-led research focused on child and youth well-being, specifically in the areas of childhood obesity, early literacy and learning, mental health problems, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In July, 2017, ten projects were funded across the four specific areas.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

New Zealanders generally enjoy a high standard of health when compared to similarly wealthy countries. This, however, is not the case for all health conditions, nor for all communities. Obesity figures in New Zealand are distressingly high and disproportionately affect Maori and Pasifika, as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We now know that babies born to mothers who are overweight or obese are predisposed to a similar fate, greatly increasing the chances of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as a shorter lifespan. We also know that pregnancy offers a unique window to try and mitigate these risks, as pregnant women are wanting to do all they can for the health of their unborn baby.


What is this project hoping to achieve?

Dr Ben Albert, from the University of Auckland, is investigating the use of Omega-3 supplementation in pregnancy to assist with halting the intergenerational trend of obesity. The trial will recruit 160 women, who will be randomly assigned to two groups; (1) taking fish oil capsules during pregnancy, and for three months while breastfeeding after birth, or (2) taking placebo tablets for the same period.

To increase the representation of the study sample, the ethnic composition of women involved will be 1/3 Maori, 1/3 Pacific Island, and 1/3 other – including European and Asian.

All 160 women will be followed-up for assessment at the birth of their baby and when the baby is three-months of age. The longer-term plan is to see these children again at 4-7 years old, where a detailed assessment of the child’s metabolism, including their insulin action will be undertaken.

Problems with insulin action are a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Preclinical studies have shown that fish oil supplementation can prevent the problems associated with insulin action.

This trial is critical to understanding the risks to offspring of pregnant women who are of an unhealthy weight. If successful, fish oil is readily available and affordable, meaning scaling this to a population level intervention would be easily expedited.