Premature babies' diet linked to diabetes risk

April 2, 2003 in Diabetes & Diabetes Prevention, Nutrition Topics in the News

Premature babies' diet linked to diabetes risk

Premature babies given a nutrient-enriched diet designed to help them catch up to their full term peers appear to be more likely to have a pre-diabetic condition in adolescence, UK researchers said last week.

However, investigators have also shown that providing pre-term infants with extra nutrition during the first weeks of life -- a period of rapid growth -- helps developing brain and bone.

Currently, premature babies are given a nutrient-enriched form of infant formula to spur their growth. Despite the current findings, experts said that practice should continue. The balance of risks may be different for infants born at the right time whose brain development is less susceptible to early nutrition, the researchers noted.

They emphasized that the current findings point to the risks of feeding premature infants too much, and do not advocate feeding infants too little.

During the current study, the investigators measured levels of the substance 32-33 split proinsulin in the blood of 216 teens born prematurely and 61 of their peers, who were born full-term. When the study participants were born, the importance of extra nutrition for preemies had not yet been recognized. As such, standard feeding practices for premature infants consisted of unsupplemented breast milk and standard, non-enriched infant formula.

All of the teens born prematurely had participated in another study conducted at the time of their birth, in which half received a standard diet while the others were given nutrient-enhanced formula designed specifically for premature infants. Relatively high levels of proinsulin can indicate a person has insulin resistance, a condition in which the body loses sensitivity to this key blood-sugar-regulating hormone, and one that often precedes type 2 diabetes, the form linked to obesity.

The researchers found that teens born prematurely who received the enriched diet tended to show higher levels of proinsulin than teens born prematurely who received a standard, non-enriched diet during the first weeks of life. Teens who gained weight in the first two weeks of life more rapidly than others - regardless of whether or not they were born prematurely -- were also more likely to have high proinsulin levels.

Just why rapid growth in the first weeks of life in premature infants might increase the risk of insulin resistance and possibly diabetes later in life remains unclear at this time.

However, previous research has shown that factors acting during "critical windows" early in life can have long-lasting effects.

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