The research published in the journal The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that the composition of breast milk in normal weight mothers differs from that of overweight mothers and that variations in small molecule metabolites found in breast milk are possible risk factors for childhood obesity.
"Childhood obesity increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and a host of other health complications. Our aim is to identify the earliest risk factors that predict obesity in children. We know that one of those factors is nutritional exposures in the postnatal period," said Elvira Isganaitis, lead author of the study.
The researchers analysed breast milk content and infant body measures (fat and muscle) at both one month and six months of age in 35 mother-infant pairs.
Mothers were classified by pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI) less than 25 (normal) or greater than 25 (overweight/obese).
"Our research digs deeper into the composition of breast milk, beyond simple carbohydrates, protein and fat," Fields said.
Using the technological advance of metabolomics analyses (a technique for large-scale studies of small molecules involved in metabolism), Dr Isganaitis analysed the concentration of 275 individual small molecule metabolites in breast milk.
The aim was to identify the molecular features of breast milk according to the mother's weight status (normal versus overweight/obese) and then to determine if any differences predicted excess weight in the first months of the infant's life.
At one month of age, 10 metabolites were found that differentiated overweight/obese mothers from lean mothers. Of those, four were identified as nucleotide derivatives and three were identified as complex carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, which may alter the gut microbiota.
At six months of age, the analysis revealed that 20 metabolites differed in overweight versus lean women. Additionally, milk adenine in obese mothers was associated with greater weight gain in infants.
While only modest differences in the milk composition between obese and lean mothers were found (10 at one month and 20 at six months, out of 275), this is the first in-depth study where we could see which substances in breast milk were more abundant in women who were overweight and which ones were lower, said Dr. Isganaitis.
"Our findings suggest that a specific mix of factors, nucleotide derivatives and complex carbohydrates, could be therapeutic targets to improve the profile of breast milk and possibly protect children from obesity," Isganaitis said.
Dr Fields explained it by identifying and profiling molecules that differ between normal and overweight mothers, the researchers are laying the foundation for interventions- diet, pharmacological or exercise- that would improve the quality of breast milk in overweight and obese mothers.
Breastfeeding is a very beneficial behaviour for both mothers and their children, said Dr Isganaitis.
"Breastfeeding should be promoted and supported. Ultimately, we would like to identify the metabolic pathways that allow breast milk to be beneficial in terms of infant weight gain and other child health outcomes. The hope is that this data could also inform ways to make the baby formula more protective in terms of future childhood obesity risk.
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