With the struggles our societies face in the battle against obesity, we need to look not only at treatment strategies for people who already struggle with their weight, but also at how we can prevent obesity in the first place. As we look earlier and earlier in life, risk factors have emerged going all the way back to not only infancy, but even to before we were born, when we were just lil’ wee blobs of cells inside our mothers’ bellies.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an excellent article describing the power of some of the risk factors during fetal life and infancy on obesity later in childhood. They discuss a study that looked at 4 risk factors for childhood obesity in a group of children aged 7-10 years:
- mother smoked in pregnancy
- mother gained excessive weight during pregnancy
- breast feeding for less than 12 months
- slept less than 12 hours per day during infancy
They found that only 6% of kids who had none of these risk factors were obese, compared to 29% of kids who had all four of these risk factors.
So how can factors before we are even born influence our risk of obesity? These observations can be explained at least in part by epigenetic changes – in other words, changes to our DNA that happen while we are growing inside our mother’s belly. (Exposure to toxins besides smoking in the environment play a role as well – read more about this here.
While not every mother is able to breastfeed, it is recommended to try, as there are a number of health benefits including a lower risk of obesity later in childhood – read more on this here.
Another interesting risk factor for childhood obesity is being born by C-section. This may be partly due to the fact that the infant’s gut is colonized with normal, healthy bacterial at the time of passage through the vaginal birth canal. We are learning that the type of bacteria we have in our gut have an influence on our body weight
as well, so it may be that the healthier bacteria acquired during vaginal birth leave us less prone to developing obesity later in life.
The good news is that some of the above risk factors are at least partially under our control – especially not smoking during pregnancy – and some of them can often be improved upon, with the appropriate care, support, and education of expecting mothers and new parents.
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