Sarah Kimmins, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, said the study focused on vitamin B9, also known as folate, which is found in green leafy vegetables, cereal, fruit and meat.
It is well known that in order to prevent miscarriages and birth defects mothers need to get adequate amounts of folate in their diet, Kimmins said. It is for this reason that some countries fortify some food with the vitamin and why newly pregnant mothers-to-be are given vitamins.
"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," Kimmins said in a statement.
"People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity might also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency."
Kimmins and colleagues compared mice offspring of fathers with insufficient folate in their diets with the offspring of fathers whose diets contained sufficient levels of the vitamin. They found paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects of various kinds in the offspring, compared to the offspring of 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," said Dr. Romain Lambrot, of McGill's Department of Animal Science. "We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both cranio-facial and spinal deformities."
This study showed sperm carries a memory of the father's environment and possibly even of his diet and lifestyle choices, Kimmins said.
"Our research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come," Kimmins added.
The findings were published in Nature Communications.