Infants Provide Insight Into Adult Obesity


Is there anything cuter than a chubby baby? There is just something about their super squishy cheeks and adorable little rolls that make baby lovers everywhere want to reach out and give them a big squeeze. But when does baby fat go from cute to concerning? Since babies tend to carry weight differently at different stages of their early development, early judgments about baby fat are not always the most effective. However, some obesity researchers are starting to look specifically at infants, thinking that the little guys and gals may provide valuable insight into determining obesity risk in both children and adults.

In late January, the New England Journal of Medicine released a report that caused researchers to realize that baby fat might not be as adorable as it initially seems. The research team, led by principal author Solveig Cunningham of Emory University, wanted to discover better ways to intervene and prevent obesity in kids and adults. Cunningham and team evaluated data from a cohort of over 7,700 participants who were in kindergarten in the United States in 1998. They found that, of the kids who became obese between the ages of five and 14, nearly half had issues with being overweight in kindergarten. The team found that overweight five-year-olds were four times as likely to become obese later in life as their normal-weight peers. “We found that new cases of obesity tended to increase early on,” Cunningham reported. Interestingly, the research team found that neither socioeconomic status nor ethnicity had an impact on obesity.

Cunningham and his team are not the only researchers who hoped that infants could provide insight into the obesity epidemic affecting both children and adults. Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Cologne recently announced that a mother’s high-fat diet during pregnancy can influence the developing brain of her baby and the baby’s chances of becoming obese later in life. The research, conducted in mice, showed that expecting mothers can have a significant impact on the metabolic health of their children. Their findings suggested that the most critical period occurs in the third trimester of pregnancy, stating that this period is when the mother’s diet can have the most influential effect. Tamas Horvath, study author and chair of comparative medicine at Yale School of Medicine revealed that, by altering their food intake, “Mothers can control or even reverse their offspring’s predisposition to obesity and resulting diseases.”

The latest study looking at the link between infants and obesity focused on babies’ appetites after birth. Researchers wanted to study whether babies with hearty appetites were more likely to experience rapid weight gain in later life. The results, recently released in JAMA Pediatric, showed that hearty appetites in early infancy supported a “causal role for appetite in childhood weight gain.” The research team shared that a baby’s enthusiastic appetite could be an early marker for increased risk of later weight gain.

By using infants to provide insight into the obesity epidemic that affects an estimated 31 percent of adults and 15 percent of children and teens, health experts are able to demonstrate the increasing importance of healthy diet habits in expecting moms and early modeling of healthy eating habits in infants. Some health experts are beginning to suggest that prevention efforts should start in utero and, in some cases, even earlier. Promoting healthy eating habits in women of childbearing age could help women work on bad habits before the baby comes and, after he or she is born, parents should focus on reinforcing healthy habits that can help keep the baby at a healthy weight in infancy and beyond.

By Katie Bloomstrom


JAMA Pediatrics
New England Journal of Medicine
Yale School of Medicine

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