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The obesity epidemic might start earlier than we think

Submitted by on Tuesday, 31 March 2009 No Comment

Researchers have known for years that overweight toddlers are more likely to grow into overweight teens, who in turn have a greater risk of becoming overweight adults.

The problem might start before even preschool, though.

New research from a Harvard-based team indicates that the cute little 6-month-old sumo wrestler might have a greater chance of growing into an obese toddler.

It draws attention for the first time to a period of life where piling on weight traditionally has been cheered as a sign of good health and when sticking a bottle in a crying babies’ mouth is the go-to soothing option for many.

“Mounting evidence suggests that infancy may be a critical period during which to prevent childhood obesity and its related consequences,” Dr. Elsie Taveras told MedPage Today.

The research Taveras and her colleagues conducted, published in April’s issue of Pediatrics,  involved 559 children in Project Viva.

That program began when pregnant women were enrolled in 1999 and continues to take a long-term look at whether events and environments early in life shape what happens later. Viva has funding to continue the research through at least 2011.

As part of the latest study, according to the abstract, babies were both weighed and measured at birth, six months and three years. The length measurement was crucial, because past data that omitted it made it impossible to determine if the baby was overweight or just big.

The results: The more weight the baby had gained by six months, the more likely he was to be obese by age 3. Among children in the top quartiles, 40 percent were obese at age 3; only 1 percent of the lower quartiles were, according to the abstract.

Obese at age 3 – that’s a somber concept.

Weight-to-length measurements at six months also were better predictors of weight at age 3 than were birth measurements, the abstract said.

“Early interventions to prevent rapid increase in weight status in the first months of life may help reduce children’s risk of obesity later in childhood,” the researchers told MedPage Today.

That kind of turns the traditional three-month checkup, with its emphasis on whether a baby is growing enough, on its ear. In light of this early research, maybe pediatricians also need to look at whether the baby is growing too much.

Scientists acknowledge the limits of the study, saying that more research needs to be done into whether breast or bottle fed makes a difference. They also want to look at whether diet after weaning comes into play as well.

Another possible factor that needs additional research: Whether parents who miss babies’ cues that they’re full are factors in overfeeding and rapid weight gain. That one makes me want to look back smugly at people who would jump up and shout “he’s hungry!” every time a baby guy would squawk, even if he’d eaten just 10 minutes earlier. “No, he’s not,” I’d say, and the brawl would ensue.

Researchers also warn that what happens at six months isn’t a lock for predicting adulthood, though it can set up problems for the rest of childhood.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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