A potential father's diet before conception may play a significant role in the health of his child, a new study by researchers at Canada's McGill University says, raising concerns about the long-term effects of current diets and food insecurity issues.

The research, which focused on vitamin B9, also called folate, said that while mothers need to get adequate amounts of folate in their diet to prevent miscarriages and birth defects, it's equally crucial to regulate the would-be father's diet as it could influence the health and development of the offspring.

“Despite the fact that folic acid is now added to a variety of foods, fathers who are eating high-fat, fast food diets or who are obese may not be able to use or metabolize folate in the same way as those with adequate levels of the vitamin,” Sarah Kimmins of McGill University said, in a statement.

According to the study, fathers should pay as much attention to their lifestyle and diet as mothers do, before they set out to conceive a child.

“People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency. And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious,” Kimmins said.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by working with mice. They compared the offspring of fathers with insufficient folate in their diets with the offspring of fathers whose diets contained sufficient levels of the vitamin.

The researchers found that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds in the offspring, compared to the mice whose fathers were fed a diet with sufficient folate.

“We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30 percent increase in birth defects in the litters sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient,” Romain Lambrot, of McGill's Department of Animal Science and one of the researchers who worked on the study, said in the statement.

The researchers said that there are regions of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experiences and particularly to diet, making them influential in the development of the offspring.

“If all goes as we hope, our next step will be to work with collaborators at a fertility clinic so that we can start assessing the links in men between diet, being overweight and how this information relates to the health of their children,” Kimmins said.