Using Chickens as a Model to Reduce Obesity in Children

Approximately 27% of children in the United States are overweight or obese by age five, a staggering statistic. Many of these obese children will grow into obese adults, with increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other serious health disorders.

The very early onset of obesity in some children highlights the need to better understand how factors early in life, such as the maternal diet, may influence fat (adipose tissue) accumulation after birth. Although the current USDA dietary guidelines recommend modest consumption of fat, some types of fats may actually be beneficial for prevention of weight gain and obesity. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fish, may counteract biological forces that promote accumulation of excess adipose tissue.

Growing evidence suggests that consumption of dietary omega-3 fatty acids early in life, including during pregnancy, can alter adipose development in a way that opposes obesity. However, previous attempts to associate maternal dietary fatty acid profiles with fat mass in children have been to this point inconclusive.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia have used chickens as a model to show that enriching the maternal diet in fish oil (FO) significantly reduced adipose tissue mass in chicks, with no detrimental effects on growth.

The research team was composed of Brynn Voy, UT Department of Animal Science, her PhD student Ronique Beckford, Shawn Campagna (UT Department of Chemistry), Robert Hettich (ORNL) and Jeanna Wilson (University of Georgia, Department of Poultry Science).

“Broiler chickens provide a unique model as they are prone to obesity, much like humans, and we can specifically manipulate the source of dietary fat for the hen and observe the effects on adipose development after hatch (i.e. birth),” Ronique Beckford said.

They combined novel metabolomic and proteomic methods to identify pathways in adipose tissue of chicks that were influenced by the maternal diet. These pathways represent targets through which the tendency for childhood obesity might be controlled by altering the diet before birth. Their results provide proof-of-principle that fatty acids provided prior to birth regulate fat development suggesting that influencing maternal diets can be used to reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

Senior author Brynn Voy said “Bottom line is that our research suggests that women can influence adipose development and the risk of obesity in their children by the types of fats they eat during pregnancy.”

More specifically, enriching one’s diet in fish oil, walnuts, or other sources of healthy PUFAs may be a new, and very feasible, means with which to combat the development of obesity in children.

The study titled “Maternal Consumption of Fish Oil Programs Reduced Adiposity in Broiler Chicks” was recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

This research was supported through the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture AgInnovation Program. Ronique Beckford’s research is supported through the Ollia E. and Wilma B. Goff Graduate Fellowship Endowment in Animal Science.


Beckford, R.C., S.J. Howard, S. Das, A.T. Farmer, S.R. Campagna, J. Yu, R.L. Hettich, J.L. Wilson, and B.H. Voy. 2017. Maternal consumption of fish oil programs reduced adiposity in broiler chicks. Sci. Rep. 7:13129.

Brynn Voy