The frequency of overnutrition (BMI SDS <2.0) (14,17,20,21) was 20 (2.6%) of 767 in boys and 8 (3.2%) of 252 in girls. These differences between observed and expected frequencies for overnutrition at diagnosis were not statistically significant.
Overall, in both boys and girls, there was strong evidence that variance of the BMI SD scores differed significantly from 1.0 (p < 0.001 for both sexes). Levene's test for the homogeneity of variances across age groups returned p = 0.051 in boys and p = 0.612 in girls. The resultant pooled estimate of the standard deviation was 1.301 for boys and 1.211 in girls.
This study provides the first data on nutritional status at diagnosis in a national cohort of patients with ALL. The observation that mean BMI SD scores of both boys and girls were negative, and the higher than expected prevalence of children below BMI SDS of -2.0, suggest that nutritional depletion is present in this patient population at diagnosis. This finding applies across the age range (Tables 1 and 2) and is an argument for routine nutritional screening at diagnosis in ALL. Because height and weight are routinely measured and recorded at diagnosis, the BMI could form the basis of standardised nutritional screening at diagnosis in childhood leukemia, and it is an index that now has widespread acceptance (17-22).
Although the BMI SDS has its limitations, it is a useful clinical index of protein-energy malnutrition (and excess, i.e., obesity) that is simple to calculate and interpret and is inexpensive (15,18-22). Biochemical assessment of protein-energy status at diagnosis in children with leukemia can be misleading (13,23) and is neither simple to interpret nor inexpensive (15,16,23). Objective, anthropometric, assessment of nutritional status is essential if valid assessments are to be made in pediatrics (16).
Choice of BMI, rather than an alternative anthropometric index (such as midarm circumference or triceps skinfold), may depend on the circumstances. In children with a large solid tumour burden or oedema, nutritional depletion may be masked by using indices based solely on body mass, such as BMI or weight for height (13,24), and measurement of indices such as midarm circumference (an index of muscle mass), with or without triceps skinfold (an index of fat mass), may therefore be necessary. However, the BMI has advantages over these other forms of anthropometry in that it is simpler and therefore more suitable in the clinical setting, and the interpretation of the index is relatively simple. It is also worth noting that current UK population reference data for midarm anthropometry are unsuitable for young children (25) and, given the greater degree of practical difficulties, midarm anthropometry may not be the preferred option for routine nutritional screening in patients with ALL.
Using the BMI to screen for undernutrition requires a degree of confidence in the underlying reference data. In the UK, the first version of the 1990 reference data for infants was criticised (26), but the revised version appears to be adequate (25,27). Evidence in the present study that variance of BMI SD scores significantly exceeded 1.0 would have been a concern if we had studied a population of healthy children. However, this apparent violation of one of the underlying assumptions of the BMI reference data may have reflected the effect of the disease on nutritional status. One final caveat in relation to use of BMI to screen for undernutrition concerns accuracy of the basic measurements of weight and height. The size of the cohort we studied would have minimised the effect of measurement error and so would not have influenced our conclusions. However, when making clinical judgments based on BMI in individual patients the accuracy of weight and height measures should be established.
Quantitative comparisons between prevalence of undernutrition in this cohort of children with ALL and other smaller studies are difficult to make because of differences in methods used. In addition, in all previous studies much smaller and more selected samples of children with ALL were recruited (in many cases with sample sizes <20). Several investigators (1,11,12) reported no significant differences in anthropometric indices between patients recently diagnosed with leukemia and controls and implied that prevalence of undernutrition at diagnosis was relatively low. However, Yu et al., (9) in a small study of children with ALL at various stages of treatment, found that biochemical indices of nutritional status were generally low, but these may have been lowered artifactually by any acute-phase response.
There is a widespread perception that undernutrition may be common early in the course of childhood leukemia (1,2) and that this may be secondary to the anorexia that is not uncommon before diagnosis. However, as noted earlier, there was some evidence that suggested that nutritional depletion is uncommon early in ALL. A larger study of nutritional status using methods that were not readily confounded by the acute phase response was necessary. The size of the present study, together with the use of contemporary anthropometric reference data, provides the strongest evidence to date that undernutrition is a feature of early ALL. Within the cohort there was no evidence that undernutrition was related to other clinical features such as white cell count at diagnosis or age of the patient, and therefore, these could not be readily used as proxy markers for undernutrition.
Although there is no gold-standard definition of undernutrition in childhood (13,14), we conclude that undernutrition at diagnosis in ALL is approximately three times higher than expected. This constitutes an argument for formal objective screening based on anthropometry. If such screening is not adopted, a substantial number of undernourished patients will not be identified as such (16). Undernutrition could be detected by use of information (weight and height) routinely collected at diagnosis.
Protein-energy malnutrition has adverse clinical implications, including impaired tolerance of chemotherapy and impaired immune function (2,3,6,7). For most (but probably not all) patients in developed countries, undernutrition tends to resolve and is not associated with increased risk of relapse in the long term (8). However, undernutrition may be associated with other adverse outcomes in the short term, and in developing countries, severe undernutrition is more common and therefore more of a concern (6,7).
If undernutrition can be detected relatively simply using the BMI and treated by referral to the hospital nutrition team or dietetic department, the case for nutritional screening at the time of diagnosis seems strong. In the medium to long term, the major nutritional risk for these patients remains overnutrition (obesity) (28-30), and any screening programme based on weight and height measurements would be suitable for identification of both under- and overnutrition in childhood leukemia. Simple clinical guidelines for the identification and management of overweight and obesity based on the BMI are available (31). The purpose of nutritional screening would therefore be to identify those patients who may require specialist nutritional intervention and more appropriate referral to such services.
Acknowledgment: The authors thank Diane Henderson, trials coordinator, Yorkhill Hospitals, for her assistance; Professor O. B. Eden, Chairman, MRC Childhood Leukaemia Working Party, and Dr. Sue Richards and Julie Burrett, Clinical Trials Service Unit Oxford, for their assistance and guidance; and members of the Childhood Leukaemia Working Party for allowing data from their patients to be used in the research.
The study was supported by the Leukaemia Research Fund.
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Keywords:© 1999 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
Body mass index; Childhood cancer; Nutritional assessment