Theme 1 Theme 2 Theme 3 Theme 4 Theme 5 Theme 6 Theme 7 Theme 8 Theme 9


Why was this project carried out?

Early nutrition programming is the concept that differences in nutritional experience at critical periods in early life, both pre- and post-natally, can programme a person's development, metabolism and health for the future.  This has been well-established in animal studies and there is a large amount of data from retrospective observational studies in people that suggest that a similar effect is seen in humans.

There is less data available from contemporary prospective studies and randomised controlled trials because these studies have not been running for long enough. The Early Nutrition Programming Project enabled the participants of these studies to be followed up into early adulthood in order to see whether the differences seen in childhood persist into adulthood.

The implications of early nutrition programming are huge - differences in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, in immune function and allergy risk, in bone health, and in cognitive, neuro-motor and behavioural outcomes have all been seen in children. The potential for improving the health of future generations is enormous.

This project also addressed other areas where not enough is known about early nutrition programming to enable sensible policies to be formulated. It gave an insight into when the critical periods are, how the effects are mediated and whether or not they can be reversed.

What were the project's key objectives?

  • Quantification of the effects of early programming on later cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, cognitive and mental disorders, bone health and some cancers (Themes 1-3).
  • Definition of the relative importance of critical periods in foetal and early life on later disease (Themes 1-3).
  • Exploration of the impact of genetic determinants on early programming effects and on subsequent outcome (Theme 3).
  • Understanding the role of specific nutrients and their interactions in the maternal and infant diet on programming effects on disease and their risk factors (Themes 1-3).
  • Understanding mechanisms for early programming on later disease and their risk factors (Theme 3).
  • Development of appropriate strategies for treating and especially for preventing the amplification of adverse programming effects of early nutrition (Theme 1).
  • Exploration of the public health impact of how knowledge about early programming affects consumer behaviour (Theme 4).
  • Quantification of the impact of early nutrition on the economic burden of adult ill-health (Theme 5).
  • Demonstration projects to test the viability of new technologies that offer a potential economic advantage, but which cannot be commercialised directly (Theme 6)
  • Improvement of training and enhancement of training opportunities for all including accession countries (Theme 8).


What did the project contribute?


  • The best available data from trials and prospective studies in humans
  • State of the art laboratory studies of mechanisms and critical time periods
  • Classification of the key genes regulating metabolic processes related to programming
  • Information on the social and economic costs of programming in Europe


  • Evidence to guide improvements in the nutritional value of formula milks
  • Data to help formulate policies on composition and testing of infant foods
  • Interventions proven to prevent and reverse early nutritional programming
  • The potential to develop new products through industrial partnership

Spin-off benefits

  • Creation of a virtual "Institute of Early Nutrition Programming"
  • A new generation of internationally respected multi-disciplinary scientists
  • Maximal impetus to maintain Europe's lead in this critical area of research.

back to top