A critical review: early life nutrition and prenatal programming for adult disease

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Aim and objective.

To present the evidence in relation to early life nutrition and foetal programming for adult disease.


Epigenetics is a new and growing area of study investigating the impact of the intrauterine environment on the lifelong health of individuals.


Discursive paper.


Searches were conducted in a range of electronic health databases. Hand searches located additional articles for review. Maternal search terms included: pregnancy; nutrition; diet; obesity; over nutrition; under nutrition. Offspring related search terms included: macrosomia; intrauterine growth restriction; epigenetics; foetal programming; childhood obesity; adolescent obesity; adolescent type 2 diabetes.


Results indicate that foetal programming for adult disease occurs in response to particular insults during vulnerable developmental periods. Four main areas of foetal exposure were identified in this review: (1) under nutrition; (2) over nutrition; (3) gestational diabetes mellitus; and (4) infant catch-up growth. Numerous studies also described the trans-generational nature of foetal programming.


Overall, foetal exposure to excess or insufficient nutrition during vulnerable developmental periods appears to result in a lifelong predisposition to obesity and adult disease, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiac disease. For the infant who has been undernourished during early life, a predisposition to renal disease also occurs.

Relevance to clinical practice.

Pregnancy is a time when women are engaged in health systems and are receptive to health messages. These factors suggest that pregnancy may be an optimal time for dietary education and intervention. There is a particular need for education on healthy diet and for interventions which aim to limit over consumption of calories.

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