Behind the headlines: Are babies fed porridge protected against asthma?

The introduction of oats into an infant's diet in the first few months after birth has been shown to have a protective effect against asthma, media reports suggest.

Adding oats to infants' diets may have an effect on asthma risk
Adding oats to infants' diets may have an effect on asthma risk

A Finnish study investigated the effect of age of introduction of certain foods during infancy on development of asthma. Results were published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

Records of child feeding patterns from birth through to five years, collected between 1996 and 2000, were analysed and linked to asthma incidence.

Six per cent of children were found to have developed persistent asthma by the age of five.

The researchers reported that 'age at introduction of oats is inversely and independently associated with development of persistent asthma'.

How conclusive are these results?
The researchers went on to say that their findings 'imply that delaying introduction of oats in infancy may increase the risk of asthma by the age of five years in children with genetic susceptibility for type-1 diabetes'.

Dr Elaine Vickers, research relations manager at Asthma UK, said: 'The genetic profile of the children studied puts them at increased risk of type-1 diabetes.

'Originally the study investigated children for a diabetes prediction and prevention project. Scientific literature suggests that children with type-1 diabetes have a lower than usual risk of asthma.'

One theory is that there is a condition linked to T-helper cell type 2 (Th2) while diabetes is linked to Th1 cells.

Dr Vickers added: 'In people with a Th2 predominance there is a greater predisposition to developing allergies and asthma.

'So there is potentially an underlying difference between the immune systems of people with type-1 diabetes and asthma, which makes it impossible to say what this study's results actually mean for the general population.'

Should guidance change?
DoH guidance advises that parents do not give their children solid food before six months of age.

'An infant's digestive system and kidneys are not developed enough to handle solid food when so young. So based on this study, it is certainly not time to change any guidance,' said Dr Vickers.

Professor of paediatrics at Imperial College NHS Trust, John Warner, also advised caution when drawing conclusions from observational studies such as this.

He said it is unlikely that oats alone are the solution to asthma, and called for further studies.

Informing patients

  • Experts say parents should continue to follow DoH guidance recommending no solid foods for children under six months of age.
  • The genetic profile of children in this study put them at 'increased risk of type-1 diabetes'.
  • Further studies are needed to determine whether there is a link between asthma and the age at which children eat oats.

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