What we eat as babies determines our future health

The first solid foods we eat as babies greatly affect our adult health. The more fats and sugars, the more inflammation, asthma and metabolic problems

SONIA GONZÁLEZ SOLARES Full Professor at the University of Oviedo. Researcher of the human microbiota diet and health group at ISPA, University of Oviedo MIGUEL GUEIMONDE FERNANDEZ Scientific Researcher, Institute of Dairy Products of Asturias (IPLA - CSIC)

The arrival of a new member to the family is always a source of happiness and new concerns, including how to provide the best possible diet. In the first moments of life, this decision is relatively simple since breastfeeding or, failing that, starter formulas are the only possible alternatives.

From a scientific point of view, both the World Health Organization and the different pediatric societies recommend the use of exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of life, whenever possible and the mother wishes to breastfeed. Is there justification for that effort?

Milk and microbiota

In addition to nutrients, human milk is a source of other bioactive components, such as immunoglobulins or oligosaccharides. And, although it is less well known, it also contains bacteria that are passed from mother to infant, including bifidobacteria.

To try to reproduce this natural effect, and to resemble breast milk as much as possible, some starter formulas have opted to enrich their products with oligosaccharides from breast milk (HMO) and it is common to find follow-on formulas with probiotic microorganisms.

Most of the bacteria that we have in the body live in the intestine, mainly in the colon. The first microorganisms reach the digestive tract of the newborn at the time of delivery and begin to establish an intestinal microbiota that will evolve as the digestive tract matures. Unlike what happens in adults, who have a more stable and varied bacterial composition, in newborns the microbiota is quite simple and evolving.

While infants are lactating, their gut is populated primarily by bifidobacteria.

Various environmental factors, such as gestational age, type of delivery, infant feeding mode, use of antibiotics, consumption of prebiotics and probiotics, or maternal diet, have the capacity to influence the establishment of the infant's intestinal microbiota. .

It is not trivial: it turns out that alterations in the intestinal microbiota, called dysbiosis, have been linked to an increased risk of suffering alterations in the proper functioning of the immune system, such as asthma or allergies. In addition to metabolic disorders, such as obesity or diabetes.

Some of these pathologies can persist throughout life, so correct management of the microbiota at an early age (and an adequate diet) is essential to promote the future health of the child.

And after that?

After 6 months, breast milk may be insufficient to guarantee all the nutritional needs of the baby, so it is necessary to introduce new foods. Complementary feeding represents a crucial stage in which a balance must be reached to guarantee the energy and nutritional requirements of the child, allowing him to develop appropriately for her age and taking into account her limited digestive capacity.

In relation to time, the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) establishes that the introduction of complementary foods should not occur before 17 weeks, nor be delayed beyond 26.

What costs more is not knowing when to start but what foods to include. What products should be incorporated into the diet, when to do it or what texture is the most appropriate are questions that open up a wide repertoire of possibilities. From the field of nutrition research it would be great to be able to recommend an ideal pattern. However, it may not make much sense to look for a standard diet that works for everyone since everyone is different.

There are as many diets as people

And what happens to the gut microbiota when solid foods come on the scene? It is a key question.

In a work carried out by our research group in recent years, the change in the diet of almost 100 children from the moment of birth to 3 years of age has been described. Despite the fact that, as previously mentioned, there is a high variability in dietary patterns, there are also common characteristics.

Our results confirm that the weaning period is a key step for the transition of the intestinal microbiota and for the promotion of dietary patterns more similar to the Mediterranean diet at the age of 1 and 2 years. We have observed that those children who at 6 months of age have a moderate energy intake and have introduced vegetables into their diet are more likely to have a Mediterranean-type dietary pattern. These foods are a source of fiber or complex carbohydrates, such as inulin, oligofructose or resistant starch, which serve as "food" for the growth of certain bacterial groups such as Clostridia, which could be beneficial for the future health of the newborn.

Pioneering work, which compared the microbiota of European children living in cities and African children living in rural areas, revealed that the excess sugar, animal fat and calorie-dense foods in industrialized countries may be changing the metabolic activity of the microbiota.

In fact, the microbiota of children in Burkina Faso, who basically ate a diet rich in cereals, allowed them to extract more energy from complex polysaccharides, generating compounds with anti-inflammatory actions. And less inflammation, of course, means better health.

This article has been published in 'The conversation'.