Making sure babies get plenty of vitamin D in the first year of their lives could protect them from obesity, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Michigan, found that infants with low vitamin D levels are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a network of conditions like high blood sugar, excess waist fat, and bad cholesterol during their adolescence.
Low vitamin D levels early in life alone were predictive of higher risks of cardiovascular problems like heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes years in the future, the researchers found.
Their study didn’t allow them to determine whether low vitamin D levels themselves can cause these health problems.
But it’s enough to suggest that feeding babies vitamin D-enriched milk could reduce their risks of obesity.
Separate research has also indicated that getting enough vitamin D may protective against severe COVID-19, at least for adults.
New University of Michigan research found that for every one unit higher a baby’s vitamin D levels were, their BMI increased more slowly in early childhood. Infants that got enough vitamin D in the first year of their lives had more muscle and less body fat as teenagers. The CDC recommends giving babies supplemental vitamin D (pictured, file) in their first days of life
To assess how vitamin D levels might impact cardiovascular risks, the researchers analyzed data on 300 out of 1,800 recruited in low- and middle-income areas of Santiago, Chile.
They measured these children’s vitamin D levels during infancy, then tracked their health through childhood and adolescence.
What they found was a remarkable relationship between vitamin D in infancy and cardiovascular health going forward.
For every one unit more vitamin D they detected in those early blood samples, taken when kids were just one, a child’s body mass index (BMI) increased more slowly between ages one and five.
Obese children are more likely to grow up to be obese adults. Their obesity is more likely to be more extreme, and the potential complications of that obesity are generally worse.
Perhaps more importantly, the University of Michigan team found that infants who got enough vitamin D had fewer signs of metabolic syndrome by the time they reached 16 or 17.
They had healthier blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and were less resistant to insulin (a good sign that they were not developing diabetes) by the time they reached their teenage years.
And children who got plenty of vitamin D as babies had less body fat and more muscle mass when they got older, compared to those with low vitamin D levels at age one.
‘We can never tell from an observational study if there is causation but at least from a predictive point of view, the fact that a single measure of vitamin D in early life predicts cardiovascular risk over such a long period is compelling,’ said senior author Dr Eduardo Villamor, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.
Although the study was conducted in Chile, it’s findings could indicate a possible tool to help combat ever rising rates of childhood obesity in the US, where one in six children now have unhealthy BMIs.
About nine percent of children – about 6.7 million – in the US are estimated to be vitamin D deficient, according to an Emory University study.
The link between vitamin D and metabolic health – and, as a result, obesity – is well documented, but how one affects the other is less clear.
One theory is that that vitamin D might block the process that produces fat cells.
But other studies have suggested that the relationship works the other way around: obese people tend to get less exposure to the sun, which is the primary source of vitamin D.
The ‘sunshine vitamin’ is also involved in kidney and blood vessel processes that ensure that both the former plays its role in metabolism well and the latter are safe from high blood pressure.
And the new University of Michigan study, published Monday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that the link is more than a matter of lacking sunlight exposure for obese people, because it looked at the variable vitamin D levels in infants.
Infants won’t spend much time in the sun, and their mothers may not be outdoors enough to supply them with sufficient vitamin D while they are breastfeeding.
As a result, the CDC recommends that babies who are entirely or partially breastfed receive an extra 400 IU of vitamin D a day.
And the new research suggests that ensuring their vitamin D levels are kept up for the entire first year of their lives could have lifelong benefits.