Programming by early nutrition: an experimental approach

J Nutr. 1998 Feb;128(2 Suppl):401S-406S. doi: 10.1093/jn/128.2.401S.


That events during critical or sensitive periods of development may "program" long-term or life-time structure or function of the organism is well recognized. Evidence for programming by nutrition is established in animals, in whom brief pre- or postnatal nutritional manipulations may program adult size, metabolism, blood lipids, diabetes, blood pressure, obesity, atherosclerosis, learning, behavior and life span. Human epidemiological data link potential markers of early nutrition (size at birth or in infancy) to cardiovascular disease and its risk factors in adulthood. However, these retrospective data cannot prove nutritional cause or underpin health policies. After 16 y, however, of ethical, randomized intervention studies of early nutrition in humans with long-term follow-up to test experimentally the nutritional programming hypothesis, we find that humans, like other species, have sensitive windows for nutrition in terms of later outcomes; for instance, perinatal diet influences neurodevelopment and bone mineralization into mid-childhood. Possible biological mechanisms for storing throughout life the "memory" of early nutritional experience and its expression in adulthood include adaptive changes in gene expression, preferential clonal selection of adapted cells in programmed tissues and programmed differential proliferation of tissue cell types. Animal and human evidence supporting nutritional programming has major potential biological and medical significance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature / physiology
  • Metabolic Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*