Researchers from A*STAR, the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the National University Health System have published a study which may take the lead in establishing an association between abdominal fat volume in newborns and health complications later in life.

In a study involving over 300 Singaporean newborns of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnicities – who were part of the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Health Outcomes (GUSTO) birth cohort – researchers discovered a significant difference in the proportions of abdominal fat between ethnicities.

"Our findings of ethnic differences in abdominal adiposity at birth are important as they not only reflect the influence of genetic factors unique to ethnic groups, but also the importance of ethnic-specific maternal lifestyle and nutrition during pregnancy," said co-author Yung Seng Lee, from the A*STAR Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences.

Newborns of Chinese ethnicity had lowest distribution of abdominal fat

Distribution of abdominal fat has long been associated with the elevated susceptibility to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, among other health problems, in adults.

There are three different compartments of adipose tissue in the abdomen. The superficial layer is the abdominal superficial subcutaneous tissue, located just under the skin surrounding the abdominal cavity, and is followed next by a layer of abdominal deep subcutaneous tissue, which is distinct from the superficial fat and separated by a sheath of fibrous tissue. The deepest layer of fat is the internal adipose tissue, which surrounds the organs.

Using magnetic resonance imaging abdominal scans, researchers were able to investigate differences in distribution of fat in each layer, and found that newborns of Malay and Indian ethnicities had larger volumes of deep subcutaneous fatty tissue compared to Chinese babies.

With these findings, further studies can be conducted to identify if the differences in cardio-metabolic risks amongst ethnicities within the population are a result of in-utero influences.

"Several reports have found that deep subcutaneous adipose tissue is strongly associated with insulin resistance and cardiovascular outcomes in type II diabetic adults,” said Mya Thway Tint of Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

“The possible relevance of this in the babies is intriguing, but we need to continue to track the fat depot distribution over time to substantiate its significance.”

Maternal health may influence baby’s fat distribution

In order to further comprehend the ethnic disparities in adiposity, as well as other maternal and developmental factors on the associated risks of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, researchers of the study aim to longitudinally track the changes in abdominal fat volume of the newborns when they turn four years old, and again at the age of six.

In addition to the findings, the authors also underlined the importance of maternal well-being before and during pregnancy, highlighting the need for further studies to investigate associations between expectant mothers’ lifestyles and the distribution of abdominal fat in newborns.

“This may help to strategise ethnic-specific early interventions such as lifestyle modifications and nutritional guidelines for women [who are planning to become pregnant]," said Tint. MIMS

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