Study eyes macadamia nuts for prevention of maternal complications

by Kelcey Buck | Education and Human Sciences

Sathish Kuman Natarajan, Jennifer Wood and Amanda Ramer-Tait pose for a group photo in Sathish's research lab. Photo by Eric Buck, Animal Science
Sathish Kuman Natarajan, Jennifer Wood and Amanda Ramer-Tait pose for a group photo in Sathish's research lab. Photo by Eric Buck, Animal Science
April 24, 2024

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln aim to determine whether incorporating macadamia nuts, which are rich in monounsaturated fatty acid, into the diets of mice can help prevent maternal obesity-related complications. The five-year project is funded by a $638,000 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Within the macadamia nut, Sathish Kumar Natarajan’s lab is studying a specific monounsaturated fatty acid called palmitoleate, which can offer protection against obesity in pregnant mice. Palmitoleate can be transferred to the baby through the placenta and can potentially offer obesity protection to the baby.

“In this project, we started with studying palmitoleate’s ability to protect against placental lipotoxicity,” said Natarajan, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences. “For example, an obese mother who gives birth to offspring is at risk of predisposing the offspring to obesity at birth or later in life. We are studying patterns associated with the rise of maternal obesity and how they influence offspring obesity. We want to know where these patterns start, and we’ve found that the patterns that program obesity start during pregnancy, specifically inside the mother’s womb, and progress later in life.”

The project involves collaborative efforts between Natarajan and Jennifer Wood, professor and molecular reproductive physiologist in the Department of Animal Science, as well as Amanda Ramer-Tait, associate professor in the Food Science and Technology Department.

The goal of this collaborative team effort is to determine how incorporating macadamia nuts into a mother’s diet could help prevent maternal obesity-induced complications, including placental damage, fetal liver damage, and maternal intestinal microbiome changes.

“What we are hypothesizing is that the changes in the microbiome after using this diet could help with changes in inflammation around the placenta and potentially to the fetus,” Natarajan said.

Using an animal model, the team is supplementing varying percentages of macadamia nuts in the diets to study whether percentages of macadamia, in addition to the high fat diet, prevent inflammation of the placenta.

“We want to see whether that can prevent fetal liver injury,” Natarajan said. “We will also look at microbiome changes that happen with the maternal obesity assets.”

Natarajan explains that preliminary data they collected thanks to a seed grant from the Agriculture Research Division at Nebraska showed that if the mother is obese, she pre-programs her offspring toward obesity later in life.

“We want to have a dietary way of preventing that programming to the fetus,” Natarajan said. “The placenta is basically a genetic makeup of the fetus, so we look at the placenta, then potentially this could be translatable to the human population where we can also have a dietary, nutrient intervention to prevent those complications.

“We have a significant obesity epidemic in the United States, and it’s moving toward an obesity epidemic in reproductive mothers. Making changes in our diet could lead to a potential mitigation of placental complications.”

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