University of Nottingham researchers are targeting Europe's biggest killer diseases - by focusing on the diet of unborn babies.
Poor nutrition in the womb and in the first months of infancy can condemn an individual to a life of poor health including higher risks of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Scientists believe a baby is ‘programmed' for a lifetime of good or poor health in its first few months by the type and amount of nutrition they receive.
Experts at The University of Nottingham are now heading up part of an £11m project to pinpoint the best way of giving babies a healthy start that will benefit them for the whole of their lives.
Their findings will help to shape public policy on mothers' diet in pregnancy and lactation. The Nottingham team believes the project could have as big an impact on public health as other lifestyle interventions - such as decreasing food intake and increasing exercise - which are much more difficult to impose.
Professor Michael Symonds, Head of the Academic Division of Child Health at Nottingham University Medical School, said: “What your mother eats and how you are fed as a baby can programme you for a lifetime of good health or bad health.
“This obviously has important health implications worldwide, given that we are living longer, more people are getting cardiovascular disease and we need to get to grips with the mechanisms behind this.”
The EU-funded project is known as EARNEST, its full title being ‘Early Nutrition Programming - Long-term follow-up of efficacy and safety trials and integrated epidemiological, genetic, animal, consumer and economic research'.
The University of Nottingham team is embarking on a series of intervention studies, manipulating diet during pregnancy and lactation to establish the optimum dietary patterns for humans.
Professor Symonds said: “There are two types of baby we should be particularly concerned about - both the baby that is too small and the baby that is too large. There has been a 20 per cent increase in birth weight over the last 10-15 years.
“That is, in part, due to the fact that mothers are larger when they are getting pregnant and are more likely to suffer from pregnancy diabetes, that is they are unable to control their blood glucose adequately.
“The result of that is the baby will actually be larger at birth… which could well be one factor that is contributing to later obesity. If you start off being too large at birth, then you are on a track to remain too large through later life.
“At the same time, a baby of normal size at birth, but who is given too much formula milk, which the mother will perceive as a good thing - i.e. that the baby is growing fast - in clinical terms it may potentially be growing too fast.
“That baby may be at more risk of later disease because when you grow too rapidly one of the adaptations is you lay down too much fat. Once you have too much fat in early life that can stay with you throughout your life: you may become obese earlier with all the complications that go with that.”
EARNEST is a Europe-wide project bringing together scientists from 38 research institutions across 16 countries in the fields of genetics, molecular biology, epidemiology, public health and consumer behaviour.
Professor Berthold Koletzko, of the University of Munich, is co-ordinating the six research initiatives that make up the EARNEST project.
Professor Koletzko said: “Major differences in risk factors for significant health problems - such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, bone health, immune function, cognitive development and behaviour - have already been observed in children who experienced different diets in the first few months of life, or whose mothers were given different supplements during pregnancy.
“These studies have not been running long enough to know whether the differences seen in childhood persist into adult life. If they do, the impact on the health of future generations is enormous.”