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Sex-Dependent Effects of Prenatal Food and Protein Restriction on Offspring Physiology in Rats and Mice: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses

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Background:  Males and females may experience different effects of early-life adversity on life-long health. One hypothesis is that male foetuses invest more in foetal growth and relatively less in placental growth, and that this makes them susceptible to poor nutrition in utero, particularly if nutrition is reduced part-way through gestation.Objectives:  Our objectives were to examine whether (1) food and/ or protein restriction in rats and mice has consistent sex-dependent effects, (2) sex-dependency differs between types of outcomes, and (3) males are more severely affected when restriction starts part-way through gestation.Data sources:  PubMed and Web of Science were searched to identify eligible studies.Study eligibility criteria:  Eligible studies described controlled experiments that restricted protein or food during gestation in rats or mice, examined physiological traits in offspring from manipulated pregnancies, and tested whether effects differed between males and females.Results:  Our search identified 292 articles, of which the full texts of 72 were assessed, and 65 were included for further synthesis. A majority (50) used Wistar or Sprague-Dawley rats and so these were the primary focus. Among studies in which maternal diet was restricted for the duration of gestation, no type of trait was consistently more severely affected in one particular sex, although blood pressure was generally increased in both sexes. Meta-analysis found no difference between sexes in the effect of protein restriction throughout gestation on blood pressure. Among studies restricting food in the latter half of gestation only, there were again few consistent sex-dependent effects, although three studies found blood pressure was increased in males only. Meta-analysis found that food restriction in the second half of gestation increased adult blood pressure in both sexes, with a significantly greater effect in males. Birthweight was consistently reduced in both sexes, a result confirmed by meta-analysis.Conclusions:  We found little support for the hypotheses that males are more affected by food and protein restriction, or that effects are particularly severe if nutrition is reduced part-way through gestation. However, less than half of the studies tested for sex by maternal diet interactions to identify sex-dependent effects. As a result, many reported sex-specific effects may be false positives.
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