A study suggests that giving women probiotics from the first trimester of pregnancy may be helpful in preventing them from the most dangerous kind of obesity.
Probiotics are bacteria that help maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the digestive tract by reducing the growth of harmful bacteria.
Kirsi Laitinen, a nutritionist at the University of Turku in Finland who made a presentation on this finding at the European Congress on Obesity on Thursday, said that the new research indicated that manipulating the balance of bacteria in the gut might help fight obesity.
"The results of our study, the first to demonstrate the impact of probiotics-supplemented dietary counselling on adiposity, were encouraging. The women who got the probiotics fared best. One year after childbirth, they had the lowest levels of central obesity as well as the lowest body fat percentage," she said.
"Central obesity, where overall obesity is combined with a particularly fat belly, is considered especially unhealthy. We found it in 25% of the women who had received the probiotics along with dietary counselling, compared with 43% in the women who received diet advice alone," she added.
During the study, Kirsi and her colleagues randomly divided 256 women into three groups during the first trimester of pregnancy. Two of the groups received dietary counselling consistent with what's recommended during pregnancy for healthy weight gain and optimal foetal development.
The study subjects were also given food items like spreads and salad dressings with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as fibre-enriched pasta and breakfast cereal to take home.
The researchers said that one of the groups was daily given capsules containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the most commonly used probiotics.
While the second group was given dummy capsules, the third received dummy capsules and no dietary counselling.
The researchers revealed that the capsules were continued until the women stopped exclusive breastfeeding, up to 6 months. They also said that the participants were weighed at the start and at the end of the study.
The team said that central obesity - a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more or a waist circumference over 80 centimetres - was found in 25 per cent of the women who had been given the probiotics as well as diet advice, compared with 43 per cent of those who got dietary counselling alone and 40 per cent of those who got neither diet advice nor probiotics.
According to them, the average body fat percentage in the probiotics group was 28 per cent as compared to 29 per cent in the diet advice only group, and 30 per cent in the third group.
Laitinen said that more studies were required to confirm the potential role of probiotics in fighting obesity.
She revealed that one of the limitations of the current study was that it did not control for the mothers' weight before pregnancy, which might influence how fat they later become.
She said that her research team would continue following the women and their babies to see whether giving probiotics during pregnancy has any influence on health outcomes in the children.
"The advantage of studying pregnant women to investigate the potential link between probiotics and obesity is that it allows us to see the effects not only in the women, but also in their children.
Particularly during pregnancy, the impacts of obesity can be immense, with the effects seen both in the mother and the child.
Bacteria are passed from mother to child through the birth canal, as well as through breast milk and research indicates that early nutrition may influence the risk of obesity later in life.
There is growing evidence that this approach might open a new angle on the fight against obesity, either through prevention or treatment," she said.