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Calcium early in life may help prevent obesity later

May 14, 2010
Courtesy of North Car­o­li­na State Uni­vers­ity
and World Science staff

It’s well es­tab­lished that peo­ple need cal­ci­um for strong, healthy bones. But new re­search sug­gests that not get­ting enough cal­ci­um in the ear­li­est days of life could al­so pro­mote obes­ity lat­er on.

Dur­ing an 18-day tri­al in­volv­ing 24 new­born pigs, sci­en­tists doc­u­mented markedly low­er lev­els of bone dens­ity and strength in 12 piglets fed a cal­ci­um-deficient di­et com­pared to 12 piglets that re­ceived more cal­ci­um. 

Dur­ing an 18-day tri­al in­volv­ing 24 new­born pigs, sci­en­tists found that many key stem cells, or im­ma­ture cells, in the bone mar­row of cal­ci­um-deficient piglets ap­peared to have al­ready been pro­grammed to be­come fat cells in­stead of bone-form­ing cells.  (Image courtesy USDA)


They al­so found that many key stem cells, or im­ma­ture cells, in the bone mar­row of cal­ci­um-deficient piglets ap­peared to have al­ready been pro­grammed to be­come fat cells in­stead of bone-form­ing cells. 

This means very early cal­ci­um de­fi­cien­cy may have pre­dis­posed the piglets to have bones that con­tain more fat and less min­er­al, mak­ing the pigs more prone to both os­te­o­por­osis and obes­ity, said an­i­mal sci­ent­ist Chad Stahl of North Car­o­li­na State Uni­vers­ity, who led the stu­dy.

In a long­er study that Stahl plans to beg­in this month, re­search­ers will look at wheth­er that’s the case: by con­duct­ing a long­er feed­ing tri­al, the sci­en­tists will check wheth­er the changes per­sist through sex­u­al matur­ity.

Pigs and hu­mans are si­m­i­lar when it comes to bone growth and nu­tri­tion, said Stahl; pigs are one of the few an­i­mals known to suf­fer bone breaks re­lat­ed to os­te­o­por­osis, an age-re­lated con­di­tion in which the bones be­come weak.

“While the im­por­tance of cal­ci­um nu­tri­tion through­out child­hood and ad­o­les­cence is well-rec­og­nized, our work sug­gests that cal­ci­um nu­tri­tion of the ne­o­nate may be of great­er im­por­tance to life­long bone health, due to its pro­gram­ming ef­fects” on the spe­cial cells, called mes­en­chy­mal stem cells, Stahl said. He re­ported the find­ings at the re­cent Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Bi­ol­o­gy 2010 meet­ing late last month in An­a­heim, Ca­lif. 

“It al­so points to a po­ten­tial par­a­digm shift in which health pro­fes­sion­als might want to beg­in think­ing about os­te­o­por­osis not so much as a dis­ease of the eld­er­ly, but in­stead as a pe­di­at­ric dis­ease with lat­er on­set.”


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It’s well established that people need calcium for strong, healthy bones. But new research suggests that not getting enough calcium in the earliest days of life could also promote obesity later on. During an 18-day trial involving 24 newborn pigs, scientists documented markedly lower levels of bone density and strength in 12 piglets fed a calcium-deficient diet compared to 12 piglets that received more calcium. They also found that many key stem cells in the bone marrow of calcium-deficient piglets appeared to have already been programmed to become fat cells instead of bone-forming cells. This means very early calcium deficiency may have predisposed the piglets to have bones that contain more fat and less mineral, making the pigs more prone to both osteoporosis and obesity, said animal scientist Chad Stahl of North Carolina State University, who led the study. In a longer study that Stahl plans to begin this month, researchers will look at whether that’s the case: by conducting a longer feeding trial, the scientists will check whether the changes persist through sexual maturity. Pigs and humans are similar when it comes to bone growth and nutrition, said Stahl; pigs are one of the few animals known to suffer bone breaks related to osteoporosis. “While the importance of calcium nutrition throughout childhood and adolescence is well-recognized, our work suggests that calcium nutrition of the neonate may be of greater importance to lifelong bone health, due to its programming effects” on the special cells, called mesenchymal stem cells, Stahl said. He reported the findings at the recent Experimental Biology 2010 meeting late last month in Anaheim, Calif. “It also points to a potential paradigm shift in which health professionals might want to begin thinking about osteoporosis not so much as a disease of the elderly, but instead as a pediatric disease with later onset.”