When it comes to producing healthy babies, the onus is usually placed on moms-to-be. Women hoping to get pregnant are urged to consume a nutritious diet - especially one rich in the B vitamin folate, which has been shown to reduce the risks of certain birth defects. But a new and surprising study suggests that what the father eats may also play a big role in an offspring's well-being.
For the study, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley recruited 89 healthy male volunteers. The researchers assessed the men's diets and the quality of their sperm.
In particular, diets were checked for levels of both folate (which is found naturally in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and legumes) and folic acid (a synthetic form of the B vitamin added to a variety of foods such as white flour and pasta).
The results, published in the journal Human Reproduction, revealed that the men with the highest folate and folic acid levels had a 20 to 30 per cent reduced chance of producing sperm with chromosomal abnormalities.
The researchers point out these abnormalities can doom the prospects of a trouble-free pregnancy.
If a defective sperm fertilized an egg, it could result in either a miscarriage or a baby with a chromosomal disorder such as Down syndrome or other conditions leading to learning and behavioural problems.
"The emphasis related to the birth of a healthy baby has been weighted towards the health and diet of women," Brenda Eskenazi, the lead researcher, said in a statement released with the study.
"What we're finding now is that a nutritious diet, specifically folate intake, may be beneficial for men as well when it comes to producing healthy offspring."
The researchers stressed that a much larger study is still needed to confirm the new findings and establish optimum folate levels. Right now, the recommended daily intake for men over age 19 is 400 micrograms a day. The men in the study who had the fewest chromosomal abnormalities consumed between 722 and 1,150 micrograms of the vitamin a day.