Higher versus lower protein intake in formula-fed low birth weight infants

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Jan 25;(1):CD003959.

Premji SS, Fenton TR, Sauve RS.

University of Calgary, Faculty of Nursing, 2500 University Dr NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, T2N 1N4. premjis@ucalgary.ca

BACKGROUND: The ideal quantity of dietary protein for formula-fed low birth weight infants < 2.5 kilograms is still a matter of controversy and debate. In premature infants, the protein intake must be sufficient to achieve normal growth without negative effects such as acidosis, uremia, and elevated levels of circulating amino acids (e.g. phenylalanine levels). This systematic review evaluates the benefits and risks of higher (>= 3.0 g/kg/day) versus lower (< 3.0 g/kg/day) protein intakes during the initial hospital stay of formula-fed preterm infants < 2.5 kilograms. 

OBJECTIVES: To determine whether higher (>= 3.0 g/kg/day) versus lower (< 3.0 g/kg/day) protein intakes during the initial hospital stay of formula-fed preterm infants < 2.5 kilograms result in improved growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes without evidence of short and long-term morbidity. 

SEARCH STRATEGY: Two review authors searched MEDLINE (1966 – May 2005), CINAHL (1982 – May 2005), PubMed (1966 – May 2005), EMBASE (1980 – May 2005), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2005), abstracts, conferences and symposia proceedings from Society of Pediatric Research, and American Academy of Pediatrics. Cross references were reviewed independently for additional relevant titles and abstracts for articles up to fifty years old. 

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomized controlled trials contrasting levels of formula protein intakes as low (< 3.0 g/kg/day), high (=> 3.0 g/kg/day but < 4.0 g/kg/day), or very high protein intake (=> 4.0 g/kg/day) during hospitalization of neonates less than 2.5 kilograms at birth who were formula-fed. Studies were not included if infants received partial parenteral nutrition during the study period or were fed formula as a supplement to human milk. Given the small number of studies that met all inclusion criteria, studies in which nutrients other than protein also varied (> 10% relative difference) were added in a post-facto analysis. 

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors used standard methods of the Cochrane Collaboration and of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group to independently assess trial eligibility and quality, and extracted data. In a 3-arm trial where two groups fell within the same predesignated protein intake group, weighted means and pooled standard deviations were calculated. 

MAIN RESULTS: The literature search identified 37 studies, of which five met all the inclusion criteria. All five studies compared low (< 3.0 g/kg/day) to high protein intakes (=> 3.0 g/kg/day but < 4.0 g/kg/day). The overall analysis revealed an improved weight gain (WMD 2.36 g/kg/day, 95% CI 1.31, 3.40) and higher nitrogen accretion (WMD 143.7 mg/kg/day, 95% CI 128.7, 158.8) in infants receiving formula with higher protein content while other nutrients were kept constant. None of the studies reported IQ or Bayley scores at 18 months or later. No significant differences were seen in rates of necrotizing enterocolitis, sepsis or diarrhea. Of three studies included in the post-facto analysis, only one could be included in the meta-analysis. The post-facto analysis revealed further improvement in all growth parameters in infants receiving formula with higher protein content (weight gain: WMD 2.53 g/kg/day, 95% CI 1.62, 3.45, linear growth: WMD 0.16 cm/week, 95% CI 0.03, 0.30, and head growth: WMD 0.23, 95% CI 0.12, 0.35). There was no significant difference (WMD 0.25, 95% CI -0.20, 0.70) in the concentration of plasma phenylalanine between the high and low protein intake groups. One study (Goldman 1969) in the post-facto analysis documented a significantly increased incidence of low IQ scores, below 90, in infants of birth weight less than 1300 grams who received a very high protein intake (6 to 7.2 g/kg/day). 

AUTHORS’ CONCLUSIONS: This systematic review suggests that higher protein intake (=> 3.0 g/kg/day but < 4.0 g/kg/day) from formula accelerates weight gain. Based on increased nitrogen accretion rates, this most likely indicates an increase in lean body mass. Although accelerated weight gain is considered to be a positive effect, increase in other outcome measures examined may represent a negative or ambivalent effect. These include elevated blood urea nitrogen levels and increased metabolic acidosis. Limited information was available regarding the impact of higher formula protein intakes on long term outcomes such as neurodevelopmental abnormalities. As determined in this review, existing research literature on this topic is not adequate to make specific recommendations regarding the provision of very high protein intake (> 4.0 g/kg/day) from formula.

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