According to the findings of Task Force Report – Nutrition and Development: short- and long-term consequences for health – from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), to be presented at conference for health professionals in London today (May 21), nutrition at early stages of a baby’s development has a significant impact on the long-term health of the individual.
The report stated that there were periods of foetal and early life development when the balance of nutrients was particularly important. These were ‘critical windows’ in development when an individual’s later health and development might be ‘programmed’, the report concluded.
The Task Force Report was compiled by a panel of eminent independent academics chaired by Professor Tom Sanders of Kings College London.
BNF science programme manager Sara Stanner said: “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 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in their children in later life.”
Risks of obesity in pregnancy
Sanders added: “This report stresses that the foundations for good health are laid down during early development. Improvements in pregnancy outcome and better infant nutrition may partly explain why cardiovascular disease rates have fallen. However, this trend could easily be reversed by the rising proportion of women of childbearing age who are obese. This is a threat that needs to be taken seriously.”
The Task Force Report highlights that almost half of all women of child-bearing age in England are overweight or obese and this can be the cause of a biological cycle of maternal obesity leading to health problems for children in later life.
Stanner said: “Industry’s efforts to commit to the Public Health Responsibility Deal pledges, such as the calorie reduction and calorie labelling pledges, have an important part to play in tackling obesity prevalence.”
She added: “The food industry plays a vital role in improving intake of key nutrients such as folic acid and vitamin D to support pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
Folic acid deficiency is associated with neural tube defects (NTDs), such as Spina bifida, in the foetus. 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.
Folic acid supplement
The UK government advises women of childbearing age to take a daily 400 micrograms (400μg) of folic acid supplement and to consume foods that provide folate and folic acid. Pregnant women should continue to take a daily 400μg folic acid supplement for the first 12 weeks and consume foods that provide folate and folic acid on a daily basis.
Obese pregnant women are at increased risk of having babies with NTDs and therefore it has been suggested that they should receive higher doses of five milligrams a day (5mg/day) of folic acid supplements prior to and in first 12 weeks.
“While awareness of the importance of folic acid supplementation around the time of conception is high, compliance with this recommendation is not reflected in practice,” said Stanner. “One of the key factors associated with lower uptake rates is unplanned pregnancies, which account for around half of all pregnancies in the UK. The most effective way to reach this group of women may be via fortification of foods with folic acid.”
Copies of the BNF Task Force Report, ‘Nutrition and Development: short- and long-term consequences for health’, are available for £59.99 from www.wiley.com.