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University of Southampton joins international researchers to track the link between early nutrition and obesity

Published: 21 March 2012

University of Southampton joins international researchers to track the link between early nutrition and obesity.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have joined an international consortium, led by the Ludwig-Maximilians at the University of Munich, which today (21 March 2012) initiates a transnational research programme for prevention and intervention in pregnancy and early post natal life to tackle later obesity and associated disorders.

The Kick-off Meeting of the EarlyNutrition project is joined by more than 60 scientists from 36 universities and research institutes in Europe, the USA and Australia. The key aim is to develop recommendations for optimal early nutrition that incorporate long-term health outcomes.

The University of Southampton's Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit and Institute of Developmental Sciences will host an almost £1 million programme of work to be carried out in Southampton.

The Southampton project team will investigate the impact of early nutrition on later health using local studies such as, the Southampton Women's Survey (SWS) and Southampton Initiative for Health.

Professor Keith Godfrey, who leads the Southampton EarlyNutrition team, and is Deputy Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Unit in Nutrition, Diet and Lifestyle at the University of Southampton and University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, says: “We are absolutely delighted to be a major part of this substantial EU project. The resulting resource for Southampton will allow a large number of important scientific projects aimed at understanding how nutrition early in life, for example in the womb and in infancy, might affect the risk of later obesity and ill-health.”

The Southampton team will explore the role of early diet, lifestyle and physical activity in determining body composition in later childhood. Detailed assessment of these factors in mothers and children from the Southampton Women's Survey will be related to the child’s fat, muscle and bone mass measured by DXA scanning in a new follow up assessment at 10 to 11 years after birth.

Prof Keith Godfrey

"The SWS is an internationally unique mother-offspring cohort, funded by the MRC, which studies the developmental origins of chronic non-communicable disorders,” explains Professor Cyrus Cooper, Director of the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit. “This project will permit the critical step of assessing the body composition of children studied in this cohort at age 10-11 years."

An understanding of the factors which influence a woman's diet and lifestyle will be gained from new work in the Southampton Initiative for Health, and biological samples acquired from the SWS will be used to explore how diet, lifestyle and physical activity might interact with our genes to influence body composition in later childhood.

Professor Mark Hanson, Director of the University's Institute for Developmental Sciences, adds: “This project will allow us to explore in detail how environmental factors, such as what a pregnant woman eats, might influence how genes are expressed in her developing baby. These findings may help us to find new ways of identifying, at birth, children who might be at increased risk of obesity and other disorders, such that preventive measures can be put in place early.”

The Kick-off Meeting runs for three days and marks the start of the active phase of the EarlyNutrition project. This international consortium consists of some of Europe's leading investigators in the area and is joined by researchers working in the food industry as well as small and medium enterprises across and beyond Europe. The project is internationally coordinated by Professor Berthold Koletzko, Dr. von Haunerschen Children´s Hospital and Ludwig-Maximilians, at the University of Munich. The research group investigates early risk factors during pregnancy and early childhood that modulate the risk of obesity and related disorders in later life.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. In 2010, around 43 million children under five were overweight. Childhood obesity is a serious problem because it is not only a predisposition to many other childhood diseases but also to early death. The growing prevalence of overweight is propelling the upsurge of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases and the risk of other non communicable diseases. Globally, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.

Professor Berthold Koletzko adds: “Obesity overall and particularly in childhood has rapidly increased all over the world during the past three decades. There is an urgent need to develop and apply effective strategies of reversing this alarming trend.”

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