GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Toddlers eating a high-quality diet have a 25-percent lower risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) later in life. Researchers in Sweden suggest that dietary choices at the age of 12 months might be crucial in preventing this debilitating condition.
Experts are now considering the possibility of doctors recommending a preventive diet for infants. Doctors have been observing a global rise in cases of IBD, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, with changes in dietary patterns suspected to be a contributing factor due to their impact on the gut microbiome.
Previous research primarily focused on diet and IBD risk in adults, with little attention given to early childhood diet. The Scandinavian research team used data from the All Babies in Southeast Sweden study (ABIS) and The Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). ABIS encompassed 21,700 children born from October 1997 to October 1999, while MoBa included 114,500 children, along with 95,200 mothers and 75,200 fathers, recruited across Norway between 1999 and 2008.
Parents provided details about their children’s diets at ages 12 to 18 months and 30 to 36 months. Diet quality was evaluated using a scoring system based on the consumption of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, dairy, sweets, snacks, and drinks.
“Higher diet quality – a higher intake of vegetables, fruit, and fish, and a lower intake of meat, sweets, snacks, and drinks – was reflected in a higher score,” says Dr. Annie Guo from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in a media release. “The total score was divided into thirds to indicate a low, medium, or high-quality diet.”
A total of 307 children were diagnosed with IBD during the study, with the average age of diagnosis being 17 in the ABIS group and 12 in the MoBa group.
“Medium and high-quality diets at the age of one were associated with an overall 25 percent lower risk of IBD compared with a low-quality diet at this age, after adjusting for potentially influential factors, such as parental history of IBD, the child’s sex, ethnic origin, and education and co-existing conditions in the mother. Specifically, high fish intake at the age of one was associated with a lower overall risk compared with its opposite, and a 54 percent lower risk of ulcerative colitis in particular,” Dr. Guo highlights. “On the other hand, consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks was associated with a 42 percent heightened risk.”
Interestingly, the team did not find any significant associations between other food groups and the risk of IBD. By the age of three, only high fish intake remained significantly associated with a reduced IBD risk.
“The findings remained unchanged after accounting for household income and the child’s formula intake and antibiotic use by the age of one,” Dr. Guo emphasizes. “These findings, while not conclusively causal, align with the hypothesis that early-life diet, potentially through changes in the gut microbiome, may influence the risk of developing IBD.”
Commenting on the findings, a prominent gastroenterologist from Massachusetts General Hospital notes that the study did not account for additives and emulsifiers in baby food, which might also contribute to IBD development. The doctor also acknowledges the challenges in accurately measuring food intake in infants and young children.
The study is published in the BMJ journal Gut.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.