A healthy diet and regular physical exercise were found to influence the levels of circulating fatty acids, a type of lipid molecules, and reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease starting in early childhood.
The findings were reported in the study, “Effect of a 2-y dietary and physical activity intervention on plasma fatty acid composition and estimated desaturase and elongase activities in children: the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children Study,” and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The levels and composition of blood fatty acid reflects the dietary consumption of these compounds, but can also be influenced by genetics, the amount of fat tissue, and sedentary behaviors.
Based on the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) Study (NCT01803776) sponsored by the University of Eastern Finland, researchers evaluated the impact of diet and exercise intervention on lipid body content and possible disease-related risks.
The PANIC study enrolled 506 children ages 6 to 8 from 16 primary schools of Kuopio in Finland and focused on the children’s lifestyle habits, health, and well-being. Among the study participants, 306 children were allocated to an intervention group. A total of 200 children were matched according to school location and size were included a control group.
Over a two-year period, children and their parents from the intervention group attended six dietary counseling sessions and six physical activity counseling sessions where they received detailed and individualized advice and support to improve diet quality, increase physical activity, and decrease sedentary behavior, based on Finnish exercise and nutrition recommendations.
The goals of the intervention were to decrease the intake of foods high in saturated fats like high-fat dairy products and meat, and increase the consumption of foods with high levels of unsaturated fats, like vegetable oil-based margarines, vegetable oils, and fish.
Participants were also recommended to increase their intake of vegetables, fruits, and berries, as well as products rich in fiber, reduce their consumption of sweetened beverages and candies, and decrease the use of salt in cooking.
Children were also asked to increase their physical activity and were encouraged to participate in after-school exercise clubs organized by the PANIC study.
Researchers found that consumption of vegetable oil-based margarines containing at least 60 percent of fat led to increased levels of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), linoleic acids, and alpha-linolenic acids in the blood, which are required by the human body to function normally.
This dietary change was also associated with a decrease in saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, which are lipids associated with increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases in childhood. This suggested that the change in dietary habits was modifying the types of fats in the children’s blood, increasing those that were beneficial for their health.
The team then evaluated the impact of this lifestyle intervention on liver enzyme activity. This was the first time this analysis was performed in children.
The enzymes analyzed in the study are responsible for the conversion of saturated fats into monounsaturated forms. This process not only prevents accumulation of fat in the liver but also helps the release of fats from the liver into the bloodstream.
But their findings showed that the dietary and exercise intervention did not influence the enzyme activity. This was likely because the changes in dietary fat composition were not enough to change the activity of the enzymes.
Overall, the lifestyle intervention had a beneficial effect on fats in the children’s blood, preventing the decrease of essential fats, and the increase of harmful fats.
“These findings on the beneficial effects of dietary and physical activity intervention on plasma fatty acid composition in children may be useful in developing lifestyle counseling strategies to prevent metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases since childhood,” the researchers wrote.