One third of infants at the age of 9 months are already obese or overweight, according to a recent study done at the University of Detroit, USA. The path towards obesity starts at a very young age – even before babies’ transition to a diet of solids.
According to the research, which analysed data from a nationally representative sample of children in the USA, born in 2001, 34% of toddlers at the age of 2 are overweight or obese. The main researcher, B. Moss, a sociologist at the Wayne State University of Detroit, states: “If you were overweight at nine months old, it really kind of sets the stage for you to remain overweight at two years”.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the USA (CDC), childhood obesity has tripled over the last three decades. In 2008, almost 20% of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 were obese. But less is known about obesity in very young children. In fact, researchers, as well as doctors, hesitate to label children that young as “obese”.
However, recent studies have raised the alarm about particularly large babies. Many of these show that babies who gain weight rapidly in the first six months of life are at increased risk of being obese by the age of 2 or 3 years.
What can be done? Studies have shown that exclusive breastfeeding – breastfeeding alone, not breastfeeding combined with bottle-feeding – prevents obesity. By contrast, improperly early introduction of solid foods increases the chances for obesity. In particular, the practice of the introduction of cereals, like rice flour, can be detrimental. The continuation of breastfeeding, at the same time as starting solid foods, from six to twelve months of life, can help. In addition, the consumption of natural fibers later – for example toddlers eating an apple instead of drinking apple juice – may protect from excessive weight gain.
B. Moss’s team used data from a population of babies that they monitored in their longitudinal study, specifically 8900 babies at 9 months, and 7500 of those same babies at 2 years. The study used the CDC growth charts, which mostly arise from babies who did not breastfeed, and which have been recently replaced in America by the World Health Organization growth charts. The latter arose from babies who had breastfed, and, if they had been used in this study, it would have led to an even higher percentage of obese small children. Kids above the 95th percentile of weight were categorized as obese, while kids in the 85th to 95th percentile were counted as overweight.
Indeed, more 2-year old toddlers were found to be obese, compared with 9 months. These findings hint at an unfortunate pattern: many babies – approximately 30% according to the study – who were overweight at 9 months, gradually become even heavier, and at two years they are characterized obese. That is, children who begin heavier, end up even heavier. Among the babies who were already obese at 9 months, when they turned 2 years old, only 37% regained their natural weight, 18% fell into the category of overweight, and 44% remained obese.
Naturally, it’s not likely that doctors are going to recommend putting infants on a diet, like older people. However, a systematic campaign of health education should be made, which will include the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, and which will particularly target population groups that are at a higher risk for childhood obesity, such as little boys and families of low socioeconomic status.
“It would be pretty important if we could, instead of reacting to kids who are already obese, maybe try to get them on a healthy track at the very early stages of their lives”, adds B. Moss.
1. Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience: “A Third of 9-Month Olds Already Obese or Overweight”.
2. Moss BG et al. Young children’s weight trajectories and associated risk factors: results from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. Am J Health Promot. 2011 Jan-Feb;25(3):190-8.
Translation/ Processing: Stelios Papaventsis MRCPCH DCH IBCLC 2011