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The University of Southampton

Transforming the medical approach to obesity

The University of Southampton’s lifecourse studies on populations of people (cohort studies) have led to a transformation in the medical approach to obesity and non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Our research has directly influenced international healthcare policy and delivered health benefits for tens of thousands of people.

Research Challenge

While scientists have long known that chromosomes passed from parent to child form a genetic blueprint for development, more recently they've come to realise that genes are not a fixed predetermined programme. Instead, they can be turned on and off by experiences and environment.


Our Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (LEU) has focused on the science of how nutritional influences during development affect later risk of obesity and chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Our work is framed by an ongoing cohort study to evaluate relationships between early growth, genetic influences, adult lifestyle and risks of age-related disorders, and the only survey of its kind to evaluate maternal data and samples from women and their infants prior to conception.

Our Solution

Using historical data from our cohort we linked cardiovascular disease in later life with poor growth in the womb and during infancy. We found elements that NCDs can transmit across generations by non-genomic means.

The findings of our unique survey of women show that patterns in diet and lifestyle are set before pregnancy and that pre-pregnancy diet quality is the strongest predictor of an infant’s diet quality. This diet quality is positively associated with later outcomes. Our findings also revealed that undue weight gain in pregnancy is associated with increased risk of childhood obesity.

What was the Impact?

Our research has directly helped change international and national policy aimed at preventing non-communicable diseases. In addition, it has wholly influenced training and education programmes, leading to health benefits for millions of people.

As a result of an international alliance of researchers, more than £10 million in research collaborations has been raised to further explore this area.

Public awareness of our findings have been raised across the UK and beyond through a BBC2 Horizon special ‘The Nine Months That Made You’ and BBC News channels.

Pre-pregnancy diet quality is the strongest predictor of an infant’s diet quality
Investigating life long health

Press Releases

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Key Publications

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