Scientific studies across the world have shown how nutrition, both pre-conception and in the early years, influence the risk of ill health and chronic diseases later in life, said Ricardo Uauy, professor of public health nutrition at the Institute of Nutrition, University of Chile and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Giving the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF’s) annual lecture last month, Uauy described how environmental factors, including a mother's diet, can cause epigenetic changes modifications to DNA that control whether a gene is turned on or off and how much of a particular protein is made in the foetus.
These epigenetic changes can be passed to children from the mother or the father, or from grandparents to grandchildren.
Uauy’s lecture was given in tribute to Professor David Barker who died in 2013. Barker was last year’s winner of the BNF Prize, which was presented to his daughter Dr Mary Barker for her father’s work in the area of intrauterine and early postnatal health, and his ‘Barker hypothesis’ or ‘foetal programming hypothesis’. This states that the environment of the foetus and infant determined by the mother’s nutrition and the baby’s exposure to infection after birth, determines the pathologies of later life.
Examples of mothers’ diets ‘programming’ their children’s risks of future ill health include neural tube defects linked with folate deficiency and altered mental development due to iodine deficiency, said Uauy. Iodine deficiency is also a potential problem in the UK in teenage girls.
Inadequate maternal and early nutrition also influence bone age (a measure of the degree of skeletal maturity of a child) and there is good evidence of the connections between slow growth in height early in life and impaired health and educational and economic performance later in life, he added.
In developing countries, the World Bank estimates that a 1% loss in adult height due to childhood stunting is associated with a 1.4% loss in economic productivity, Uauy informed his audience. In contrast, exposure to maternal obesity or fast (catch-up) growth in early infancy can lead to central fat deposition and increased risk of obesity in later life.
“Nutrition needs to be fine-tuned accordingly so that the right nutrients are being obtained by women pre-conception and during pregnancy, and by their children in early life, to help them achieve weight gain without becoming overweight or obese, ensure adequate nutrient intakes, optimum bone growth and protect against stunting,” said Uauy.
“The challenge for us in the UK is to improve nutrition in teenage girls and young women well ahead of pregnancy,” said Professor Judy Buttriss, director general of the BNF.