Mum's diet before birth will decide if baby is a fat adult
The diet of a mother before and during pregnancy and the food consumed by the baby during its first two years can increase the chance of obesity in adulthood, a senior public health specialist has warned.
The research comes at a time when one in four Irish children are overweight or obese and one in 10 primary school children have high blood pressure.
The link between early nutrition - even before a baby is born - and later weight related health problems is now accepted by scientists. Dr Mary Flynn, Chief Specialist of Public Health Nutrition at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, says decisions made before a child is even conceived can be the source of health problems later in life.
Risk factors include a mother being overweight or underweight when they conceive, women of child-bearing age not taking folic acid and not consuming enough vitamins.
She claims a child's long-term health can also be affected by not breastfeeding or breastfeeding for too short a period, moving from liquids to solid foods too early and by feeding the child high-fat, high-sugar and high-fibre foods as an infant.
"Really strong international data is showing that this critical early period will determine health 50 or 60 years later," said Dr Flynn.
According to Dr Flynn, the way mothers manage their pregnancy can safeguard against obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, disturbed blood lipids, type two diabetes and other illnesses of their babies in later life.
The idea that poor womb nutrition can result in common chronic diseases was first suggested by British physician and epidemiologist David Barker in the 1980s.
The 'Barker hypothesis' or 'foetal programming hypothesis' proposed that the environment of the foetus and infant - determined by the mother's nutrition and the baby's exposure to infection after birth - shapes health in later life.
Dr Flynn will discuss the best ways to protect the health of Irish women and girls at an up-coming Royal College of Physicians public lecture as part of the St Luke's Symposium 2015 'Kickstart a Healthier Lifestyle Today'.
It takes place on October 12 at 6pm.
During her lecture - 'Fat Chance: the Importance of Early Nutrition' - Dr Flynn will analyse why folic acid should be taken by all women of child-bearing age; how the right type of food during pregnancy can influence foetal growth rate; and how, if a woman has a poor diet during pregnancy, a baby can adapt to that environment and is not prepared for the variety and amount of food in our world today.
"Our children are growing up in a far more obesogenic world than their parents grew up in, and we are surrounded by foods the immature intestine isn't ready for and will distort this critical period," she said.
The latest figures from the National Adult Nutrition survey show that just 60pc of 18 -35 year olds are a healthy weight.
Just 50pc of all 35-50 year olds are considered a healthy weight, however, 65pc of women over the age of 35 are overweight or obese. Almost 40pc of women aged 18-35 years are overweight or obese.
"We're not a healthy weight starting off, so we're already facing reproductive challenges," said Dr Flynn, adding that young women's lack of education around the benefits of folic acid and breastfeeding is a huge problem.
"Breastfeeding is the biggest challenge of all because as soon as it's mentioned you'll immediately have women lining up to face each other and that has to be defused," she said.
"There is no doubt it gives your baby the best start as it protects against diseases and infection that infant formula will never be able to do," she said.
However, she stresses that this lack of awareness is a reality that all of our society - not just women and girls - must face.
"It's not that mothers are not wanting to do their best for their babies but in order to secure a healthy future in Ireland it is absolutely essential that society becomes aware of the vital importance of women's nutrition, pre and post pregnancy," she said.