THURSDAY, March 10 (HealthDay News) -- Newborns with a low birth weight due to their mother's poor nutrition during pregnancy may be "programmed" to eat more, research in animals suggests.

The finding may help explain the connection between low birth weight and obesity later in life, and also highlights the importance of good nutrition for pregnant women, according to researchers at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed).

Their work with laboratory animals found that newborns with low birth weight had fewer neurons in the area of the brain that controls food intake than those with a normal birth weight.

The researchers noted that previous studies have shown that babies that have a low birth weight and then experience an accelerated "catch-up" growth are at increased risk for health problems later in life, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis.

The study is published in the March 10 issue of the journal Brain Research.

"This study demonstrates the importance of maternal nutrition and health in reducing obesity," co-author Dr. Mina Desai said in an LA BioMed news release. "Obesity and its related diseases are the leading cause of death in our society, yet we have few effective strategies for prevention or treatment. These studies suggest maternal nutrition could play a critical role in preventing obesity and related disease."

In the United States, more than 60 percent of adults are overweight and more than 20 percent are obese, and about 17 percent of children and teens aged 2 to 19 are obese, according to background information in the news release.

More information

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers advice about nutrition during pregnancy.