Scientists say that the diets of pregnant women could decide whether their children will be obese later on in life.
The study by New Zealand and British scientists indicates that children born to mothers who ate badly during pregnancy may be more likely to put on weight later in life.
Scientists at the University of Auckland's Liggins centre say the way the foetus adapts to the environment in the womb can determine how it reacts to food later in life.
If the womb is low in nutrients, the foetus may predict food supplies will be low later in life and set its metabolism to store and conserve fat, the researchers led by Professor Peter Gluckman said in a statement Tuesday.
The study says if this early prediction proves false and food -- particularly food high in fat -- is readily available, the child may be programmed for adult obesity and conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
"The study poses questions of fundamental importance that change the whole way we think about who we are," Gluckman said.
He said the study may be important in explaining why genetically similar individuals can have markedly different metabolisms later in life.
"It changes the way we should think about tackling the obesity epidemic."
The study, based on tests on the metabolisms of rats, was done in collaboration with New Zealand's National Research Centre for Growth and Development and the University of Southhampton in Britain.