Poor diet in the womb raises risk of illness

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Newborn babies could be at much greater risk of developing asthma if their mothers eat food which is low in vitamin E during pregnancy, a new study has discovered.

Newborn babies could be at much greater risk of developing asthma if their mothers eat food which is low in vitamin E during pregnancy, a new study has discovered.

The study, involving laboratory tests on the blood of 223 newborn babies, has added further weight to the theory that diet plays a very significant part in the development of asthma among children.

The team of scientists involved in the study, which was funded by the National Asthma Campaign, believe they are close to discovering which foods will help guard against asthma ­ marking a major breakthrough in the battle to combat the condition.

It is expected they will recommend fresh foods which are naturally rich in vitamins E and C, and Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish. This will raise fresh doubts about the quality of modern diets, in which the intake of fresh food has fallen.

Professor Martin Partridge, chief scientific adviser to the National Asthma Campaign, said the latest findings were "extremely important" because they helped to establish the precise link between the disease and diet.

The findings will heighten debate among environmental campaigners and scientists over the causes of asthma now being highlighted by The Independent on Sunday's campaign to tackle the disease.

Professor Partridge cautioned against believing diet alone caused asthma. He said the disease was probably caused by a combination of factors including childhood infections, pollution in the home and in the outside environment. Other experts believe genetics play a key role in a child's susceptibility to the condition.

"What's important about this study is that it's not just looking at the relationship between population and diet, it's actually looking at the mechanisms by which we can explain previously noted correlations," he said.

The latest findings, published in the latest edition of the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, came after the team from Aberdeen University Medical School tested the blood samples with allergens such as dust mites and pollen. They discovered that the blood of babies born to mothers with diets that were low in Vitamin E-rich food or who smoked showed, at birth, a much poorer immune response to the allergens. This suggested greater susceptibility to asthma.

"We know that a poor diet increases the risks of having asthma in childhood and adult life by a factor of three to seven times," said Professor Anthony Seaton, one the report's co-authors.

Professor Seaton, former head of the Government's Expert Panel on Air Quality, said they were preparing to publish further findings based on the children of 2,000 parents recruited for the study, who are now between one and three years old, which would prove whether or not that increased sensitivity led to asthma in childhood.

Funding is being sought for a further major study which will follow two groups of pregnant women, one fed a normal diet and the second a diet with foods thought to prevent asthma.

He said research in Saudi Arabia had also found that children in cities, where diets were poorer, were three times more likely to get asthma. "There must now be a strong suspicion that dietary change has been a major factor in the worldwide rise in the prevalence of allergies," he said.