1. Possible associations between maternal nutrition in pregnancy and non-communicable diseases of adulthood were assessed using a rat model. Rats were habituated to diets containing a range of protein levels (18, 12, 9 and 6% by weight), over a 14 day period, before mating. The low protein diets were maintained throughout pregnancy. Lactating mothers and their offspring were transferred to a standard chow diet (20% protein).
2. Pregnant rats demonstrated a graded response to the diets, with those fed 9 and 6% protein tending to consume less energy and gain less weight than 18% protein fed controls. Litter size and newborn death rates were not significantly altered by the low protein diets.
3. Offspring of 12 and 9% protein fed dams were grossly normal, gaining weight at a similar rate to those born to 18% protein fed control rats. Offspring of the 6% protein fed dams were smaller than pups from all other groups, over a 21 week period.
4. At 9 weeks of age, systolic blood pressure was determined in the offspring. All offspring from the three low protein groups were found to have significantly elevated blood pressure (15–22 mmHg) relative to the control group. An inverse relationship between maternal protein intake and the systolic blood pressure of the offspring was observed. Blood pressure remained elevated in the offspring of the 9 and 6% protein fed dams until 21 weeks of age. The observed hypertension was associated with increased pulmonary angiotensin-converting enzyme activity in the low protein groups.
5. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that poor maternal nutrition in pregnancy may irreversibly impair aspects of physiological and biochemical function in the fetus. This has potential adverse consequences for the later health of the offspring.