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Healthy fats protect babies against obesity in later life

08 May 2014

More omega-3 fatty acids and less linoleic acid in foods eaten by infants and young children will protect them against obesity in later life. This is one of the findings of a thesis written by Annemarie Oosting of the University Medical Center Groningen. Oosting used a mouse model to study the effects of fatty acids in diet. She concluded that minor changes to the composition of food given to very young children may reduce the risk of obesity in later life. Oosting will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 14 May.

Over the last few decades, the amount of linoleic acid (n-6 fatty acid) in food has increased sharply in relation to the amount of omega-3 fatty acids (n-3 fatty acids). Previous studies have suggested that this could explain the growing number of obese people. Oosting’s study was designed to explore whether the opposite (i.e. a diet containing less linoleic acid or more omega-3 fatty acid) would reduce the risk of obesity in later life.

Altering breast milk

In an attempt to prove her hypothesis, Oosting altered the composition of breast milk by changing the diet of the nursing mice immediately after they had given birth. The mice that were fed a diet containing less linoleic acid also had less linoleic acid in their milk. The milk of the mice fed more omega-3 fatty acids contained more omega-3. As a result, the new-born mice also received modified amounts of these dietary lipids.

Permanent changes in the fat cells

Oosting discovered that as adults, the mice that had been fed more omega-3 fatty acids as babies developed smaller fat cells. This can be explained by a permanent change in the metabolism of the fat cells, which allows them to store less fat. Oosting also saw a positive effect on the fat cells of the mice that had been fed less linoleic acid: although the cells were larger, the mice developed fewer of them and were therefore able to store less fat. The effect of both interventions (more omega-3 fatty acid and less linoleic acid) thus leads to a lower body fat mass in adult mice.

Preventing obesity at an early stage

In her research, Oosting stresses the importance of giving high-quality food to very young children to improve their health in later life. ‘When my findings would be confirmed in humans, we will have clear guidelines for improving the quality of the dietary lipids fed to children in the early stages of their development. This could form the basis of new strategies for preventing obesity at an early stage by making simple changes to the diets of pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and young children.’

Oosting’s study is a good example of life-course medicine and prevention that results in ‘healthy ageing’.

Curriculum Vitae

Annemarie Oosting (Oss, 1979) studied Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University. She conducted her PhD research under Prof. Henkjan Verkade, Professor of Paediatrics at the UMCG. Her thesis is entitled: ‘Programming of adult metabolic health by dietary lipids in early life’. Oosting’s research was part of a joint research project being carried out by Nutricia Research and the UMCG, focusing on the effects of infant and childhood diet on obesity and metabolic diseases in later life. Nutricia Research funded the study. After obtaining her PhD, Oosting will continue to work as a researcher for Nutricia Research.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.34 p.m.
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