A new report by University of Southampton academics emphasises the links between poor diet in mothers and ill health in their children, and calls for women of childbearing age to be made more aware of the importance of good nutrition.
The report "Early Nutrition and Lifelong Health," published this month by the British Medical Association Board of Science, looks at the evidence that the diets of women of reproductive age, and those of their foetuses and young children, are significant factors in influencing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, brittle bone disease and even some forms of cancer and mental illness, later in those children's lives.
Lead author Professor Mark Hanson, director of the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease at the University of Southampton, comments: "Society and public health organisations need to pay much greater attention to these issues if the rising epidemic of these diseases is to be prevented. Tackling the diseases once children reach adulthood is often too late. By taking steps to improve maternal nutrition we could save many people from a lifetime of ill health."
The research was funded in part by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Professor Hanson's co-authors are Professor Caroline Fall, Dr Sian Robinson and Dr Janis Baird of the MRC Epidemiology Research Centre at the University of Southampton.
Their report raises concerns about diets in the UK, but also in developing countries in many parts of the world.
According to the authors, unbalanced nutrition, whether too much or too little or of poor quality, can have long-term effects. In the UK, for example, many have diets low in certain nutrients although they have access to plentiful food.
The numbers of women who breastfeed their infants is still too low, they say, with many women starting to breastfeed, but then stopping too soon, and many infants being fed inappropriate foods at the weaning stage.
"The nutritional transitions occurring in many developing societies will have major effects on diets between generations, and this will increase the risk of chronic disease dramatically," continues Professor Hanson.
"It's not only women who need to be careful about they quality of their food intake. Prospective fathers should also eat well and steps need to be taken to ensure that young people understand the importance of good nutrition as part of their lifestyle choices."
The report suggests that the medical profession can help by advising people about the importance of good nutrition, especially before and after they have children and by promoting breastfeeding and appropriate early foods for babies.
More advice could be given to people with young children about the importance of a balanced diet for those children and more support could be given to women to help them start breastfeeding and to continue with it.
The report is available at http://www.bma.org.uk/health_promotion_ethics/child_health/
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