Timing of babies' solid food might affect diabetes risk

Tuesday, September 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Introducing cereal too early or too late in infancy might increase the odds of diabetes in children already at risk for the disease, a study suggests.

Another study found a similar risk for introducing gluten-containing foods too soon.

Both studies suggest that starting solid food at the wrong time could overwhelm at-risk infants' immature immune systems and trigger changes that might lead to diabetes.

The preliminary findings are far from proof, and the researchers themselves said the results should not prompt any changes in babies' feeding habits.

Still, the research is provocative and could reveal some of the environmental triggers that might contribute to some cases of diabetes.

The studies _ one from the University of Colorado, the other from Germany _ are published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Both involved youngsters already at risk for juvenile diabetes because of genes or family members already afflicted. Both studies also compared the timing of the introduction of solid food in infancy with the development of antibodies that sometimes lead to juvenile diabetes.

Doctors frequently recommend starting solid food _ usually cereal _ between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.

University of Colorado researcher Jill Norris and colleagues found a fourfold increased risk of developing pre-diabetes antibodies in babies started on any type of cereal before the recommended period, and a fivefold higher risk for those fed afterward.

Norris said it might be that introducing solid food too soon induces the production of antibodies that destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Starting solid food after 7 months might also might overload infants' still-developing immune systems, Norris said.

Her study involved 1,183 children followed for an average of about four years. Only 34 children showed persistent evidence of the pertinent antibodies, and only 16 actually developed diabetes.

The average age for developing juvenile diabetes is around 11, and more of the children studied might develop it when they get older, Norris said.

The other study, from the Diabetes Research Institute in Munich, involved 1,610 children followed for an average of about six years. It found an increased risk in introducing solids earlier than 4 months of age _ but only with foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.

New Orleans pediatrician Dr. Michael Wasserman of the Ochsner Clinic Foundation said the theory that the introduction of certain foods induces diabetes ``doesn't make intuitive sense and yet it may be scientifically correct based on information we don't yet know.''