What kids consume before the age of one could potentially determine their susceptibility to future illnesses. Researchers have found that a high-quality diet at the age of one may reduce the subsequent risk of inflammatory bowel disease.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the digestive tract. It includes two disorders: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation or sores along the lining of the large intestine, while Crohn's disease impacts the deeper layers of the small intestine.

Although previous studies have shown how diet influences the risk of IBD in adults, very little is known about how early childhood diet affects the risk.

After analyzing participants from two large-scale cohorts: All Babies in Southeast Sweden study (ABIS) and The Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child Cohort Study (MoBa), the researchers recommend including plenty of fish and vegetables in an infant's diet while minimizing the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. The findings were published in the journal Gut.

Parents were asked to respond to specific questions about their children's diet when they were aged 12-18 months and 30-36 months. The researchers also noted the data on the age of weaning, antibiotic use, and formula feed of the participants at these two sites.

The diet quality of the participants was measured in terms of the Healthy Eating Index(HEI) and categorized as low, medium, and high. Children who had a higher intake of vegetables, fruit, and fish, and a lower intake of meat, sweets, snacks, and drinks were given a higher HEI score.

The health of the children was followed up for an average of 21 years for ABIS and 15 years for MoBa. During this period, a total of 307 children developed IBD, of them 131 had Crohn's disease, 97 had ulcerative colitis and 79 children developed an unclassified IBD.

"Medium and high quality diets at the age of 1 were associated with an overall 25% lower risk of IBD compared with a low quality diet at this age, after adjusting for potentially influential factors, such as parental history of IBD, the child's sex, ethnic origin, and education and co-existing conditions in the mother," the researchers wrote in the news release.

"Specifically, high fish intake at the age of 1 was associated with a lower overall risk compared with its opposite, and a 54% lower risk of ulcerative colitis in particular. Higher vegetable intake at 1 year of age was also associated with a reduced risk of IBD. On the other hand, consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks was associated with a 42% heightened risk," they added.

However, the team did not observe any obvious associations between food groups that include meat, dairy, fruit, grains, potatoes, foods high in sugar and/or fat, and overall risk of IBD or risk of developing Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.

The results indicated that by the age of three, there was a strong association between only high fish intake and reduced overall IBD risk, and ulcerative colitis in particular.

"While non-causal explanations for our results cannot be ruled out, these novel findings are consistent with the hypothesis that early-life diet, possibly mediated through changes in the gut microbiome, may affect the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease(IBD)," the researchers wrote.

The study has not accounted for the effects of additives and emulsifiers in baby food that could contribute to the development of IBD, gastroenterologist Dr. Ashwin Ananthakrishnan of Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, pointed out in a linked editorial. Also, it is difficult to ascertain the exact measurements of food intake in infants and children.

"Despite the absence of gold standard interventional data demonstrating a benefit of dietary interventions in preventing disease, in my opinion, it may still be reasonable to suggest such interventions to motivated individuals that incorporate several of the dietary patterns associated with lower risk of IBD from this and other studies," Ananthakrishnan said.

"This includes ensuring adequate dietary fiber, particularly from fruit and vegetables, intake of fish, minimizing sugar-sweetened beverages and preferring fresh over processed and ultra-processed foods and snacks."