Preemies Fare Better When Underfed

Babies need to be well-fed to grow into healthy adults, right?

Maybe not, say British researchers in this week’s issue of The Lancet. Their study of adolescents born both prematurely and full-term finds premature infants who were on a low-nutrient diet in the first weeks of life were significantly less likely to show early signs of diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease and other complications later in life.

The study grew out of animal studies suggesting accelerated growth in infancy increases later susceptibility to insulin resistance and non-insulin dependent diabetes in adulthood. For example, accelerated growth early on actually reduces resistance to starvation in the speckled wood butterfly and impairs glucose tolerance and life expectancy in rats. Slower growth in infancy reduces these harmful effects.

These investigators evaluated infant feeding records among 216 teenagers born prematurely in the 1980s. Some had been on low-nutrition diets early in life and some had been on normal diets. These teens were compared to one another as well as to 61 other teens who were born full-term and received normal diets. All were tested for early markers of diabetes.

Results show teens who were born prematurely and had been fed low-nutrient diets in the first weeks of life had 20-percent lower levels of diabetic markers than the other teens — both those born prematurely and full-term.

The investigators aren’t sure if these findings would be the same in a study involving full-term babies. They believe these findings deserve more attention from the health care community because they show, for the first time, that lower nutrient intake and slower growth in the first weeks of life can play a role in programming the body for healthier outcomes in the future.

SOURCE: The Lancet, 2003;361:1089-1097

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