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Previous studies have shown pregnant women who pack on the pounds suffer from complications like diabetes and high blood pressure, but little research has shown what those extra pounds could mean for babies. In addition to bumping up their chances of becoming obese later, large babies are also more likely to get stuck in the birth canal or need a cesarean section.
Ludwig said when pregnant women overeat, some of those extra calories overstimulate the fetus' growth.
"The fetus is developing in an abnormal metabolic environment where there is excess blood sugar," he said. "That could alter the development of tissues, organs and perhaps even the wiring of the brain that regulates appetite and metabolism."
Neal Halfon, of the Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities at the University of California, said obesity prevention in the womb wasn't about encouraging pregnant women to trim down but improving their diet and exercise.
While obesity is caused by many different factors, some experts said the link between birth weight and obesity later in life should make women more conscious of how much weight they gain while pregnant.
"This is an extremely important message," said Arne Astrup, a professor of nutrition at the University of Copenhagen. "If mothers are not careful, they could in some way program their children to be obese or diabetic before they are even born."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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