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New Research On Reducing Early Childhood Obesity

In an important step on the road to understanding and preventing childhood obesity, researchers have discovered the nutrients mums receive before and during pregnancy can make a real difference to how much weight their children put on in the first years of life.

The research, led by the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute and part of the NiPPeR study with the University of Southampton, the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, involves approximately 500 mothers (and their children) in three countries - New Zealand, Singapore and the UK.
Half the mothers in the study received an enriched supplement including vitamins B2, B6, B12, D, probiotics and myoinositol, together with standard pregnancy supplementation. The other half were in a control group and received standard pregnancy supplementation alone. Neither the mums nor their medical teams knew which group they were in.
When researchers checked in on the children at age two years, they found half as many obese children in the cohort whose mothers were in the enriched supplement group (nine percent versus 18 percent), compared to the control group.
In addition, children of the mums in the enriched supplement group were almost 25 percent less likely to have experienced ‘rapid weight gain’ - a condition which often leads to obesity.
The findings are significant, says Wayne Cutfield, professor of paediatric endocrinology at the Liggins Institute, and one of the leaders of the research.
“In a world of obesity, our data suggests supplementing mums before and during pregnancy can have benefits way beyond the pregnancy and for the women involved; it can impact their baby into childhood and potentially beyond.”
Professor Keith Godfrey, co-author and chief investigator of the NiPPeR Trial, from the University of Southampton agrees.
“Preventing obesity is arguably the most important thing we can do, because treating obesity is so much more difficult.”
Rates of childhood obesity are continuing to rise in many countries, particularly in less advantaged groups, Godfrey says.
“The new findings suggest the period before and during pregnancy may provide a ‘special opportunity’ – a time when supporting better nutritional status for the mother could have lasting benefits for her child.”
The next stage of the research is to try to identify which of the various nutrients in the supplement are producing the beneficial impacts in terms of reducing or preventing unhealthy weight gain, Cutfield says.
The supplement contained seven additional micronutrients and any of the seven (or a combination of them) could have impacted the metabolism and development of the children and the likelihood of obesity, he says.
“We do not yet know the precise mechanism, but there’s evidence some of the micronutrients are associated with body metabolism in pregnancy. We have started analysing the data and we hope to be able to drill down into which component or components are most critical.”
Co-author Associate Professor Shiao Yng Chan from the National University of Singapore says the effects of a mother's nutrition during pregnancy might not show in the baby right away.
“As the child grows, the things that happened in the baby's body while in the womb become apparent. These early events, sometimes called ‘foetal programming’, can influence how the child reacts to an unhealthy lifestyle, like eating lots of fatty foods and not getting enough exercise.
“This can make some children more likely to become overweight."
The NiPPeR study is a collaboration between the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, the University of Southampton, the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, National University of Singapore, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore.
It involves many different research strands into areas of the health and behaviour of the mothers and children involved. The researchers targeted a cross-section of healthy women representing the general population in the three countries.
The latest findings, on the impacts on obesity, were published today in the highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journal BMC Medicine. Work is continuing to look at the impacts on the children when they are between six and eight years of age, Cutfield says.
“It is exciting to see that treatment in pregnancy can have a long legacy of benefits into childhood. We will continue to follow these children to see if this impact is maintained.”

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LEAD AUTHORS
 

  • Professor Wayne Cutfield, Professor in Paediatric Endocrinology at the University of Auckland – profile here.
  • Professor Keith Godfrey MBE, Professor of Epidemiology and Human Development at the University of Southampton – profile here.
  • Associate Professor Shiao-Yng Chan, Clinician Scientists at the National University of Singapore – profile here.

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