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Formula for Health

Researcher Pursues Link Between Infants’ Calcium Intake, Adult Maladies

By Liam Farrell


Illustration by Kelsey Marotta

Illustration by Kelsey Marotta

The battle for kids’ health starts much earlier than a preschool argument over French fries or carrot sticks, according to UMD research. In fact, determining the right level of nutrients for infants could hold the key to avoiding adulthood struggles with osteoporosis, obesity and diabetes.

Chad Stahl, professor of animal and avian sciences, has been studying how different levels of calcium in infancy can affect the development of bone marrow stem cells, which change into varied biological functions, and bones in piglets, which are effective stand-ins for human babies.

In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Stahl fed them three modified baby formulas (adequate, deficient and excessive) and found that the 30 percent swing in calcium between them—an amount in human terms that is less than a single calcium supplement pill—changed bone composition and stem cell behavior.

Piglets on the deficient diet had thinner bones with less minerals and stem cells that were more likely to turn into fat than bone. Piglets on the excessive diet had the healthiest immediate results, with the strongest bones and mineral growth.

The research, which mirrors what Stahl has found with phosphorus, underlines the importance of finding the optimal amount of calcium for early life. In a generation, he says, we may make huge health gains with changes to baby formula that would cost less than a penny and make no difference in flavor or consistency.

The next step for researchers is to study the longer-term effects of a diet with larger amounts of calcium to see if it can help prevent diabetes and obesity and limit the creation of fat cells.

“Understanding what is going on early in life is more critical than we have thought,” Stahl says. “Now we are talking about the fine tuning of nutrients.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.