Speaking at the FoodNavigator 2021 Digital Summit: Positive Nutrition, Ellis emphasised the importance of good nutrition in the child’s first 1000 days of life, from conception to their second birthday.
“Early life nutrition influences health for a lifetime,” she told the audience. “What happens in the first 1000 days is more important than any other stage of our lives.”
This is because it is a period of growth and development ‘more rapid and significant’ than at any other stage. Children’s organs and tissues are being formed and educated, making this a ‘unique window of opportunity’ to shape lifelong health.
Nutrition in early life impacts physical growth, cognitive development, immune maturation, the development of the digestive system and development of healthy eating habits, the nutrition expert stressed.
Nutrition plays a crucial role in this. A poor early life diet increases the risk of developing non communicable diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
A gut feeling: The importance of the microbiota
From conception until birth and first contact, a mother’s microbiota plays an important role in maintaining not only her own health but also that of her infant.
“Microbiota stimulate the immune system, break down potentially toxic food compounds and synthesises certain vitamins and amino acids,” Ellis explained. “Having a diverse and abundant microbiota is incredibly important for early life as well as later life.”
Factors that can negatively influence an infant’s microbiota development include poor diet during pregnancy, delivery via C-section, being born prematurely, early life antibiotic administration and external environmental factors, such as lack of exposure to pets, Ellis noted. Diet, she continued, plays a ‘large role’ in determining what kinds of microbiota live in the colon.
Human milk is the ‘best source of nutrition’ for infants. “Human milk … provides a complex and diverse matrix of nutrients and bioactive compounds in an optimal balance of nutrients and other components that are specifically tailored to the infants needs," Ellis explained. It is an important factor in establishing an infant’s immune system and is associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity, allergies and asthma and NCDs.
But, where parents can’t or choose not to breast feed, formula milks should include ingredients that are beneficial to gut health, Ellis believes.
“It’s important for formula milk to include ingredients that are beneficial for gut health. Prebiotics such as short chain GOS and long chain FOS in a nine-to-one ratio have been widely studied and found to have beneficial effects on gut health,” the early life nutrition expert stressed.
From infant to toddler: A dramatic dietary shift
The nutritional needs of infants change ‘dramatically’ during the first two years of life. At around six months, infants start to require more energy, protein and iron – and this is when complementary food is introduced.
“All babies are born with a preference for sweet tastes. Other preferences are learnt through exposure and weaning is an important opportunity to increase exposure to new flavours. The introduction of solid food can also help promote the development of motor skills needed for eating,” Ellis observed.
However, she warned, it is important to take into account the nutritional requirements of young children, which differ from other life stages. “Young children are not mini adults. An infant’s stomach is five times smaller than an adult, yet they need up to five times more nutrients, such as vitamin D and iron. This means the food they need to consume needs to be nutrient rich. Often young children are found to have suboptimal nutritional intake. For example vitamin D intake is often low, but it is extremely important for bone health as well as the immune system,” she stressed.
And while intakes of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats are ‘often low’ in infants, consumption of energy and protein is ‘often too high’, with implications for obesity risk.
So how can food innovators help address these nutrition gaps?
Pointing to one study carried out in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, Ellis suggested that fortified growing up milks can be part of the solution.
“The randomised controlled study found that, at the start of the study, 12% of toddlers had iron deficiency and 22% had vitamin D deficiency. For 20 weeks children either received an iron and vitamin D fortified young child formula or non-fortified cow’s milk. Following the intervention iron and vitamin D status was significantly improved in young child formula group whereas deficiencies were present in the cow’s milk group. This study highlights the important role that young child formula milks can play to tackle childhood nutrient deficiencies.”
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