Nutrition in early years key to later health, EU-funded study shows

EU-funded research is revealing how nutrition in the womb and during our early years affects our risk of obesity, heart disease, lung disease and behavioural and cognitive problems in later years. Crucially, scientists from the EARNEST (Early nutrition programming) project have already translated many of their research findings into practical advice.

"For example, the project partners have collaborated in developing evidence-based recommendations on practical recommendations for dietary fat intake in pregnancy, during breastfeeding, and in infancy," explained project coordinator Professor Berthold Koletzko of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Germany. "Another part of this European research collaboration has explored what drives parental decisions on nutrition and lifestyle, and which messages are provided to them in information materials issued, for example, by government offices, scientific bodies and non-governmental organisations."

EARNEST, which is just drawing to a close, received EUR 13.4 million from the EU under the 'Food quality and safety' Thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The project partners are presenting their findings at a conference in Munich, Germany, on 6-8 May.

Results presented at the event include the revelation that giving pre-term babies breast milk significantly increases bone size and mineral content 20 years later. Intriguingly, this is not related to the mineral content of the children's early diet, suggesting that there may be other non-nutritive components of breast milk which are responsible for promoting bone strength.

Another part of the project investigated the effects of replacing breast or formula milk with energy-providing liquids such as sugared teas and juices. The study found that these drinks lack many of the nutrients found in breast and formula milk, and therefore lower the quality of the infant's diet. This finding is important given the growing popularity of energy drinks.

Elsewhere, EARNEST researchers discovered that providing vitamin D supplements may cut the risk of pre-enclampsia (a complication of pregnancy characterised by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine) in first time mothers by 27%. Furthermore, mothers whose diets are rich in vegetables, plant foods and vegetable oil appear to have a lower risk of pre-enclampsia, while mums to be who eat fish twice a week are less likely to have a pre-term delivery.

Another important project result concerns sex differences. For example, studies in mice demonstrate that the female offspring of obese mothers have higher blood insulin levels, while the male offspring do not. In addition, boys and girls appear to respond differently to the protein levels in their diets. The scientists have yet to determine if or how these differences affect health in later life, but the findings raise the possibility that formula milk may one day be tailored specifically for boys or girls.

"This is a new and exciting area of research which suggests that some of the differences in disease risk seen in men and women in later life might be explained by different responses to programming effects in early life," commented Professor Koletzko.

According to the project coordinator, "EARNEST has enormous potential for improving the health and well-being of future generations, reducing costs for healthcare and social services, and enhancing the productivity and wealth of societies.

"Overall, we have made some significant progress in mapping out the long-term consequences of early programming, but like a mountaineer, we feel like we have reached a summit, only for another to appear behind it," he concluded. "Much more research is required to fully understand how environmental factors adversely affect long-term outcomes and the extent to which the mother is able to protect her child against them."

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