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Extra nutrients during pregnancy may reduce risk of childhood obesity, study finds

Updated: Jan 31

Taking a nutritional supplement before and during pregnancy could promote healthy weight in childhood, according to new research.

Experts say the results are an important step on the road to preventing childhood obesity.

The research is part of the international NiPPeR study. Professor Keith Godfrey from the University of Southampton (UoS) and the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) is the study’s Chief Investigator.

“Preventing obesity is one of the most important things we can do, as treating obesity is much more difficult,” he said.

“The new findings suggest the period before and during pregnancy may provide a ‘special opportunity.’ Supporting better nutritional status for the mother at this time could have lasting benefits for her child.”

The new analysis by researchers in the UK, New Zealand and Singapore has been published today in BMC Medicine.

Improving nutrition

Rates of childhood obesity are rising in many countries, particularly in less advantaged groups.

Obesity increases the risk of many health diseases. These include type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.

500 women from across the globe took part in this study. They were randomly allocated to two groups.

One group received an enriched supplement - including vitamins B2, B6, B12, D, probiotics and myoinositol - alongside a standard pregnancy supplement.

The other group received a standard pregnancy supplement alone. Neither the mums nor their medical teams knew which group they were in.

The 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 group (nine percent versus 18 percent).

Their analysis also showed these children were almost 25 percent less likely to have experienced ‘rapid weight gain.’ This often leads to obesity.

Prof Wayne Cutfield is a Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology at the Liggins Institute in Auckland, and one of the leaders of the research. He said:

“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.”

Future research

The enhanced supplement contained seven additional micronutrients.

More research is needed to identify which of the nutrients in the supplement are most beneficial. Any of them - or a combination - could have impacted the metabolism and development of the children and the likelihood of obesity.

Prof Cutfield added: “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.”

Associate Professor Shiao Yng Chan from the National University of Singapore was a co-author on the paper. She 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 are sometimes called ‘foetal programming.’ They 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."

International collaboration

The NiPPeR study is a collaboration between the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, the University of Southampton, the NIHR Southampton BRC, the 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 in the three countries.

Work is continuing to look at the impacts on the children when they are between six and eight years of age.

Professor Marian Knight, NIHR Scientific Director for Infrastructure said: 

"These latest findings are a step towards beginning to understand and prevent childhood obesity.

“Pioneering nutrition, lifestyle and metabolism research is at the heart of our NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre. Working closely with global partners, the aim of this ambitious study is to continue making discoveries that will help give every child the best start in life.”


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