Evidence for the protein leverage hypothesis in preschool children prone to obesity

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  • Hanyue Zhang
  • Alistair M. Senior
  • Christoph Saner
  • Nanna J. Olsen
  • Sofus C. Larsen
  • Stephen J. Simpson
  • David Raubenheimer
  • Heitmann, Berit

Background & aims: The protein leverage hypothesis (PLH) proposed that strict regulation of protein intake drives energy overconsumption and obesity when diets are diluted by fat and/or carbohydrates. Evidence about the PLH has been found in adults, while studies in children are limited. Thus, we aimed to test the PLH by assessing the role of dietary protein on macronutrients, energy intake, and obesity risk using data from preschool children followed for 1.3 years. Methods: 553 preschool children aged 2–6 years from the ‘Healthy Start’ project were included. Exposures: The proportion of energy intake from protein, fat, and carbohydrates collected from a 4-day dietary record. Outcomes: Energy intake, BMI z-score, fat mass (FM) %, waist- (WHtR) and hip-height ratio (HHtR). Power function analysis was used to test the leverage of protein on energy intake. Mixture models were used to explore interactive associations of macronutrient composition on all these outcomes, with results visualized as response surfaces on the nutritional geometry. Results: Evidence for the PLH was confirmed in preschool children. The distribution of protein intake (% of MJ, IQR: 3.2) varied substantially less than for carbohydrate (IQR: 5.7) or fat (IQR: 6.3) intakes, suggesting protein intake is most tightly regulated. Absolute energy intake varied inversely with dietary percentage energy from protein (L = −0.14, 95% CI: −0.25, −0.04). Compared to children with high fat or carbohydrate intakes, children with high dietary protein intake (>20% of MJ) had a greater decrease in WHtR and HHtR over the 1.3-year follow-up, offering evidence for the PLH in prospective analysis. But no association was observed between macronutrient distribution and changes in BMI z-score or FM%. Conclusions: In this study in preschool children, protein intake was the most tightly regulated macronutrient, and energy intake was an inverse function of dietary protein concentration, indicating the evidence for protein leverage. Increases in WHtR and HHtR were principally associated with the dietary protein dilution, supporting the PLH. These findings highlight the importance of protein in children's diets, which seems to have significant implications for childhood obesity risk and overall health.

Original languageEnglish
JournalClinical Nutrition
Issue number11
Pages (from-to)2249-2257
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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© 2023

    Research areas

  • Children, Energy intake, Nutritional geometry, Obesity, Protein leverage hypothesis

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