Obesity prevention starts in the womb

By Amanda Johnson 18/10/2012

The annual scientific meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society starts today; the theme of the meeting is ‘For our children’s children‘, and a fascinating programme has been put together with some great speakers who will be presenting their research on this important topic.

One of the keynote speakers for today (18 October) will be Professor Wayne Cutfield, who is a Professor in Paediatirc Endocrinology and Director of The Liggins Institute. He will be discussing the foetal footprint. You can listen to Professor Cutfield’s key messages, along with those of some of the other key speakers, via a Science Media Centre briefing held in advance of the conference.

Professor Wayne Cutfield told the Science Media Centre briefing that early life events are critically important and can contribute to increased risk of adult obesity and diabetes.

According to Professor Cutfield, common variants in genes account for less than 10% of common diseases – the impact of genetics is fixed and small. The environment is therefore very important and it isn’t just genes that cause chronic disease.

It is important, he says, to prevent obesity early. Children born small for gestational age (1-3%); premature babies (3-5%); and post-term babies (2-4%) all have an increased risk of obesity, insulin resistance and/or diabetes. First born children (60%) also have an increased risk of insulin resistance and high daytime blood pressure.

A study by Redwood et al that has just been completed showed that 250 women going through IVF had a limited change in diet or lifestyle in the period leading up to pregnancy (alcohol was consumed by 51%; a small number smoked – 2%; caffeine was consumed by 87%; and folic acid intakes were low among 17%). There was a perception that pregnancy doesn’t count until you have a positive pregnancy test, but in fact the impact of early life events begin very early in pregnancy. Diets were also high in fat and saturated fats; and low in carbohydrate, calcium iron and folic acid.

His conclusion was that the optimal foetal environment is delicately poised. Deviation from the average (too early/late/small) increases risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The foetal environment – particularly the nutritional environment during pregnancy right from just prior to conception is important for life-long health.

There has been some media coverage of this issue today in the New Zealand Herald and 3 News and on Stuff.

It is quite clear that we need to improve nutrition education in women of reproductive age in terms of promoting optimal food intakes during pregnancy. Education, suggests Professor Cutfield, should begin in the teenage years when girls are still at school.

By ensuring the right nutrients are consumed right from the time when pregnancy is being planned and certainly during pregnancy while the baby is growing in the womb, we can at least give our children the best possible start in life. All women of childbearing age need to have access to these important messages about nutrition and health, both for themselves and for their future children. This could have a significant impact on the health of the nation in the future.