Low-Protein Nordic Diet Promotes Healthy Eating in Infants Low-Protein Nordic Diet Promotes Healthy Eating in Infants

Infants who were introduced to a low-protein diet – high in fruit, vegetables, and roots – ate more fruits and vegetables at 12 and 18 months of age, compared with those who ate a conventional diet, in a new study.

The “Nordic diet” has shown health benefits in children and adults, but has not been studied in infants, said Ulrica Johansson, MD, of Umeå (Sweden) University, in a presentation on the study at the annual meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition.

A healthy and sustainable diet early in life could have a significant impact on future health, Johansson said in an interview.

Johansson and colleagues aimed to investigate the effect of a Nordic diet in infants aged 4-18 months in the OTIS trial. All infants were breastfed or formula-fed at baseline.

Study Methods and Results

A total of 250 infants aged 4-6 months were randomized to consuming a Nordic diet or a conventional diet. Those in the Nordic group received exposures to Nordic foods and flavors, including Nordic fruit, berries, vegetables, and roots. Those in the conventional group received baby food products that followed the current Swedish dietary recommendations for infants. The researchers collected data on dietary intake, biomarkers, and growth from baseline up to 18 months of age.

Notably, acceptance of all the flavors in the Nordic diet was high, including those with sour or bitter taste, such as cranberry and white radish, Johansson said in her presentation. Food refusals were few, and did not differ among the Nordic food offerings.

At both 12- and 18-month follow-ups, infants in the Nordic group consumed 42%-45% more fruits and vegetables compared with those in the conventional group (P < .001). Plasma folate levels also were significantly higher in the Nordic group compared with in the conventional group, at both 12 months and 18 months (P < .001 and P < .003, respectively).

The daily mean protein intake ranged from 17% to 29% lower in the Nordic group compared with in the conventional group, at both 12 months and 18 months. The intake of protein in terms of g/kg of body weight was significantly lower in the Nordic group, at both time points. Lower protein intake was confirmed by blood urea nitrogen measurements.

The protein intake in the Nordic group still fell within the safe level recommended for healthy growth in young children by the World Health Organization, noted Johansson, and no significant differences were observed in growth between the groups. Total energy intake, iron status, and duration of breastfeeding also remained similar between the groups throughout the study period.

Parents received support from research nurses via social media and monthly clinic visits, which she believes contributed to the success of the intervention, she said.

Nordic Diet Offers Feasible Encouragement of Healthy Eating

The key message for clinicians, and for parents of young children, is that “the protein-reduced, Nordic diet is both feasible and safe for infants’ growth, nutritional requirements, and development during the complementary feeding period,” Johansson said in an interview. “Thus, it may serve as a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet alternative for infants and their parents in the future.”

“Nordic foods are feasible to use when exposing infants to a variety of flavors so that healthy food preferences can be established early in life; Nordic berries and some root vegetables are preferable when introducing bitter and sour tastes during the sensitive period,” she added.

“Multicomponent interventions with long-term follow-up are required to advance the field of child nutrition research,” Johansson emphasized. Home-based interventions are lacking, and “more studies are needed to bridge the gap in research between the transfer period from baby food to family food at 1-2 years of age.”

Large, randomized controlled studies of Nordic diet during infancy and later childhood are needed as well, said Johansson. “The long-term effects of the Nordic diet during this highly dynamic period of childhood need continued follow-up to school age to give indications of any lasting health effects,” and the researchers plan to follow the current study population at 7 years of age.

Findings Reinforce Need for Better Nutrition

Previous research documents concern for childhood obesity associated with higher intake of protein, fats and overall calories in infancy, said Cathy Haut, DNP, CPNP-AC, CPNP-PC, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in an interview. “The inclusion of high-calorie, high-fat foods contributes to obesity in all children, so focusing on intake of fruits and vegetables is extremely important early in life,” she said.

A key barrier to the widespread use of a Nordic-type diet is that and vegetables tend to be more expensive than other foods and may not be readily available to all families, especially lower income families, Haut added.

However, for primary care clinicians, the current study reinforces the need to encourage the intake of fruits and vegetables at all ages, beginning in infancy, she said.

Looking ahead, “there is still limited information in the literature about the ideal recommended daily protein, except for increased amounts needed for preterm infants, early infancy, and during periods of healing,” Haut emphasized. “Some controls for this study were not included in the abstract, such as monitoring what foods were given to the infants in the conventional group. Parent and caregiver interpretation of recommendations can be highly variable,” she noted. Also, “The activity levels of late infancy and toddlers can vary in terms of energy usage, especially when crawling, walking, running and other exercise-related activities begin. These factors were not readily available in the abstract/study,” she said.

The OTIS trial was sponsored by Semper. Johansson had no financial conflicts to disclose. Haut had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Pediatric News.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.