Evidence that early childhood nutrition affects later reproductive success

Scientists say they have found clear evidence that early childhood nutrition significantly affects reproductive success later in life.

A team of European scientists has found clear evidence that early childhood nutrition significantly affects reproductive success later in life.

The scientists combined historical agricultural data with detailed demographic church records to investigate the effect of food availability around the time of birth for 927 men and women born in a small community in 18th century Finland. Some residents were rich, and some were poor.

The study, which was published in the Journal Ecology in December 2010, showed that – among both men and women born into families that did not own land and had low access to resources – marital prospects, probability of reproduction, and offspring viability were all positively related to local crop yield during the birth year. Meanwhile, these same effects were generally absent among those born into landowning families. The researchers said:

Among landless individuals born when yields of the two main crops, rye and barley, were both below median, only 50% of adult males and 55% of adult females gained any reproductive success in their lifetime, whereas 97% and 95% of those born when both yields were above the median did so.

These scientists say their results suggest that good nutrition in prenatal or early postnatal life might have profound implications for the rest of life, particularly among those for whom resources are limited.

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They say their study adds support to the idea that early nutrition can limit reproductive success in natural animal populations, and provides the most direct evidence to date that this process applies to humans.

Beth Lebwohl