The Adelaide University study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was conducted using under-nourished male mice. It provides evidence that a father's health at the time of conception is directly passed on to future generations, said lead author Nicole McPherson.
"While much of the previous research has considered the impact of overweight or obese fathers on the health of their children, this is one of the first studies of its kind looking at the potential consequences of under-nourished fathers," said Dr McPherson, of the university’s Robinson Research Institute.
"Under-nutrition is a common affliction, affecting hundreds of millions of adults and children the world over. Because of this, some developing countries provide dietary supplements to both pregnant women and children in the hopes of improving long-term health outcomes.”
Around 2bn people in the world suffer from various forms of malnutrition, which account for a third of child deaths globally.
Under-nutrition is considered to be the number one risk to health worldwide and accounts for 11% of the global burden of disease.
Some developing countries have for some time invested heavily in providing energy and protein supplements to expectant mothers. Bangladesh, which has a national programme to do so, has seen the number of underweight children under the age of five fall from two-thirds to one-third since 1990.
However, researchers are only now coming to understand the importance of both parents’ health at the moment of conception, she said.
"What we're seeing from our research is that some form of dietary supplementation may also benefit fathers-to-be.”
In laboratory studies funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, Dr McPherson and colleagues found that the offspring of under-nourished male mice were often born with low birth weight, and showed evidence of abnormal gene expression and metabolic markers, such as cholesterol and fats.
These offspring were prone to health conditions including increased risk of non-communicable diseases, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, mirroring the situation for human children born in the developing world.
After being fed on a diet containing additional zinc, folate, iron and other vitamin supplements, under-nourished male mice had improved fertility and conceived offspring with much healthier levels of weight at birth. These offspring showed normal gene expression and healthier levels of the same metabolic markers.
"The results are promising, suggesting that nutritional sufficiency is a critical factor in optimising 'paternal programming' of offspring," Dr McPherson said.
The findings could one day be translated into interventions, to help reduce the health burden of under-nutrition, she added.