From the time humans are born, everything they put in their mouths ultimately affects the body’s immunological response and how they metabolize food. During the Beacon Lecture on Wednesday, June 27, Jose Saavedra, Nestlé Nutrition and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that among the biggest problems the world’s population faces today are chronic non-communicable diseases associated with obesity and a poor immune system. These diseases include allergies, celiac disease, irritable bowel disease, and diabetes. Saavedra said that a healthy diet combined with healthy intestinal microbiota is the combination necessary to lead a healthy life. Abnormal or poor microbiota in the gut are associated with acute and chronic diseases.
The foundation for a healthy gut does not automatically occur. Children delivered by cesarean birth have an increased chance of having a non-communicable chronic disease because they do not come in contact with the inoculative bacteria in the vagina and gastrointestinal tract. Cesarean births are sterile; vaginal births are not. This is why doctors encourage vaginal births as well as breast feeding. Both give infants their first exposure to microbes that are integral in the development of a healthy immune system.
The introduction of common food antigens (gluten, nuts, dairy products, etc.) must be timed properly as well. Introducing antigens too soon in life is counterproductive as is introducing them too late. Nevertheless, it is important to feed healthy foods to children as early as possible, Saavedra said. If healthy dietary preferences are not established early in life, most people never acquire them. Poor dietary choices begun at an early age tend to continue throughout one’s lifetime. “It is much easier to prevent poor behavioral tendencies [such as eating a poor diet] than to change it,” Saavedra said.
Ideally, a child’s initiation to healthy foods should begin in the womb. The infants of women who consume a healthy diet before and during pregnancy, give birth vaginally, and breast feed have healthy gut microbiota and a greatly reduced chance of developing any of the non-communicable chronic diseases, Saavedra said.