This month, the British Medical Association (BMA) Board of Science has published a report on Early Life Nutrition and Lifelong Health. The report reviews the evidence that the diets of women of reproductive age, and those of their foetuses and young children, are significant factors in influencing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, brittle bone disease and even some forms of cancer and mental illness, later in those children’s lives.
Lead author Professor Mark Hanson, director of the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease at the University of Southampton, comments:
“Society and public health organisations need to pay much greater attention to these issues if the rising epidemic of these diseases is to be prevented. Tackling the diseases once children reach adulthood is often too late. By taking steps to improve maternal nutrition we could save many people from a lifetime of ill health.”
Unbalanced nutrition can result from both inadequate and excessive dietary intakes, and both can exist at the same time in many populations. Moreover diets which lead to over-nutrition (e.g., excess calories) are often micronutrient poor.
There is strong evidence that undernutrition (stunting or wasting) during the first two years of life leads to impaired adult cognitive, physical and economic capacity, which cannot be repaired even if nutrition improves later in childhood.
Improved availability of energy-rich foods has however, enabled large numbers of people to escape from hunger. This has brought considerable benefits, but is already giving rise to obesity and obesity-related disease. Developing countries are reporting high rates of coronary heart disease (CHD) and type 2 diabetes that have appeared in one or two generations to become leading causes of morbidity and mortality. These epidemics are expected to intensify. By the year 2030, the prevalence of diabetes is predicted to rise by over 100 per cent in India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East; an increase far exceeding that in high-income countries (54%).
There is good evidence that an increased deposition of fat tissue in foetuses and babies is an outcome of both undernutrition and excessive nutrition. Low birth weight babies born to underweight women in India have proportionately more fat than would be expected for their body weight. Maternal obesity, another form of maternal malnutrition, also increases the fat tissue of the foetus and newborn baby. This phenomenon is exacerbated further if maternal obesity is complicated by gestational diabetes.
Extremes of maternal body composition, either excessive thinness or obesity, are associated with adverse patterns of foetal and infant development leading to poorer long-term health.
“It’s not only women who need to be careful about the quality of their food intake. Prospective fathers should also eat well and steps need to be taken to ensure that young people understand the importance of good nutrition as part of their lifestyle choices.”
The numbers of women who breastfeed their infants is still too low, with many women starting to breastfeed but then stopping too soon, and many infants being fed inappropriate foods at the weaning stage. Breastfeeding rates in the UK are much lower than in many European countries. Less than1 per cent of mothers in the UK are exclusively breastfeeding at six months.
While there are gaps in the evidence about the long-term consequences of poor maternal and infant nutrition, and we do not as yet understand the mechanisms fully, it is clear that steps need to be taken to promote healthy diets in young women and their families, to encourage breastfeeding and the use of appropriate complementary foods.
More advice could be given to people with young children about the importance of a balanced diet for those children and more support could be given to women to help them start breastfeeding and to continue with it.
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