By: 10 July 2013

A woman’s diet and lifestyle before and during pregnancy and the infant’s diet in early life can affect her baby’s risk of succumbing to disease in later life, according to findings of the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF) new Task Force Report, ‘Nutrition and Development: short- and long-term consequences for health’.

The Task Force panel which compiled the report, chaired by Professor Tom Sanders of Kings College London, examined aspects of nutrition and early life development and the impact on the long-term health of an individual. The findings were presented at a conference for health professionals in London.

Evidence shows that there are periods of foetal and early life development where the balance of nutrients is particularly important – these are the ‘critical windows’ in an offspring’s development during which his or her future health and development may be ‘programmed’.

Sara Stanner, Science Programme Manager at BNF, explained: “While environment and lifestyle factors may play a part, there is now unequivocal evidence of the biological link between the health status of women and conditions such as obesity, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease in their children in later life.

“There is strong evidence that excessive intake of vitamin A or insufficient consumption of folate or folic acid have clear developmental impacts on unborn children. However, foetal growth and development may also be affected by more subtle variations in nutrition during ‘critical windows’.”

The Task Force Report showed that a mother’s weight and the quality of her diet, even pre-pregnancy, can affect the environment in her womb, her baby’s birth weight and her baby’s subsequent health in early life and on into adulthood. Birth weight and the rate of growth in early life can play a role in longer-term health, for example influencing the risk of obesity in childhood.

About one in six women (16 percent) in England are obese at the start of pregnancy and babies born to obese women can sometimes be small and growth-retarded but can also be of an excessive birth weight. Professor Tom Sanders, Chair of the Task Force, said: “Maternal obesity increases the risk of complications in pregnancy, including pre-eclampsia, that can result in a small, growth-retarded baby.

“Evidence suggests that poor foetal growth, especially followed by accelerated growth in infancy, may be associated with long-term adverse consequences for health. Poor foetal growth may also affect kidney development, making offspring more sensitive to the blood pressure raising effect of salt and, therefore, increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The types of bacteria resident in the large intestine are thought to influence health. “All infants have their own unique gut microbiota which is determined, to a large degree, by the environment to which the infant is exposed. Healthy gut microbiota helps prevent the gut being colonised by harmful microorganisms and is important in establishing a healthy immune system and for the absorption of some nutrients.”

Additional interest at the conference was paid by professor Graham Devereux, from the University of Aberdeen, to the effect of the nutrient content of the maternal diet on the development of childhood asthma and allergic disease, in particular regarding  vitamin E, vitamin D, zinc, selenium and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Dr Nick Harvey, from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, said: “Low vitamin D concentrations are common in the UK population because of a lack of exposure to sunlight in winter months and poor availability of vitamin D from dietary sources; additionally few people regularly eat oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, which do contain this nutrient. Although pregnant and breastfeeding women are currently advised by the UK Department of Health to take a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement daily, few women actually take vitamin D supplements.”