Preventing Obesity

Did you know, obesity can begin in infancy, or even befor our baby is born?

Childhood obesity is now recognized as a nationwide health epidemic. Recent national statistics show that more than one in four children examined by pediatricians is either obese, or at high risk of becoming obese.

The rise in obesity rates has led to a dramatic increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents. Obese children are also at risk for cardiovascular heart disease and elevated blood pressure. Because obese children are likely to become obese adults, they face a host of other serious health problems as they mature, including stroke, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers.

Early risk factors

Obesity begins in infancy, or before. Several risk factors for developing obesity have been identified, and all form during the first year of life or prenatally.

Being born to obese parents increases the likelihood that a baby will become obese. Before the age of 3, parental obesity is a stronger predictor of obesity in adulthood than the child’s own weight. By age 6, children are 15 times more likely to be obese if their mothers are overweight. Researchers cannot say yet how much of the influence is genetic or environmental, but suggest both contribute to the risk. 

A recent study points to one environmental association: Infants of obese mothers consumed more calories than those of normal-weight mothers, although obese mothers fed their infants less frequently. Obese mothers also tend to spend less overall time interacting with their infants. This difference in feeding style and level of interaction may predispose certain infants to later obesity.

Other research confirms that women who are obese before pregnancy tend to stop breastfeeding sooner than normal-weight women. Breastfeeding for less than three months, even among normal-weight women, is also associated with developing obesity.

When and how fast a baby gains weight also increases the risk of obesity. Babies born small for their gestational age with a higher percentage of body fat relative to lean tissue may have “catch up” weight gain in the first few months of life, and a corresponding higher risk of future obesity. Regardless of birth weight, however, a pattern of rapid weight gain during the first four months of life is associated with an increased risk of being overweight at 7 years of age.

Other factors associated with the development of childhood obesity include early exposure to solid foods, excess consumption of fruit juice or soda, and maternal smoking.

An ounce of prevention

Obesity is far easier to prevent than to treat. Once a child becomes overweight, weight loss interventions are expensive and have poor long-term success rates.

Effective prevention may begin before conception. Women who are obese before becoming pregnant can reduce the obesity risk for their child by losing weight before pregnancy. (Weight loss during pregnancy is not recommended.)

Another preventive step is to learn about breastfeeding during pregnancy, so that the first days and weeks of nursing go smoothly and early weaning is avoided. Breastfeeding beyond 4 months is perhaps the most powerful way to help protect against obesity. The longer the duration of breastfeeding, the greater the protection. Research shows that not only are breastfed babies far less likely to become overweight as children, but that this defense stretches into adolescence and even adulthood.

One factor in this protection may be that breastfed babies largely self-regulate the amount of calories they ingest, eating more frequently, but fewer calories overall, than formula-fed infants. This ability to self-regulate their caloric intake—to stop eating when they are full—endures long past weaning.

Another step parents can take is to avoid introducing solid foods before 5 to 6 months of age. Initiating solids early has been associated with the development of allergies and type 1 diabetes (when a family history is present), as well as obesity.

For formula-fed infants, quick weight gain during the first week of life may be a critical factor in the development of obesity decades later, although this factor is not yet fully understood. Throughout infancy, babies who are bottle-fed should be allowed to self-regulate as breastfed babies do. When a healthy baby shows disinterest in finishing a bottle, parents are advised to follow his or her cues, rather than pressing the baby to swallow the last ounce or two of formula.

Water: Beverage of choice

After weaning from breastmilk or formula, children are often given cow’s milk as a source of bone-building calcium. Some studies, however, suggest that dairy products may be a factor in excessive weight gain in children. One study found that children who drank the most milk also gained the most weight. Interestingly, skim and 1ilk were associated with weight gain, while whole milk was not, perhaps because parents allow children to drink low-fat milk more freely.

In addition to, or instead of, milk or fruit juice, dietary experts suggest letting water quench a child’s thirst. Alternate sources of calcium, if that is the reason milk is encouraged, include green leafy vegetables, which also provide a host of other important nutrients. Daily exercise is also important for developing healthy bones, as well as preventing obesity.

Healthy choices for a lifetime

While obesity is seen in ever greater numbers, and accompanied by a range of intractable health problems, the basic steps to reducing the risk of it are straightforward and within the reach of most parents: a healthy diet for both parents, and breastmilk for their baby for the first 6 months of life.

Read more Baby Alerts!