Does adult obesity take root in infancy?

Reporting from the Canadian National Obesity Summit

Baby David is crying

At today’s afternoon session at the National Obesity Summit experts discussed many of the factors that link obesity in adolescence/adulthood with factors dating to infancy and the intra-uterine environment.  Researchers from the University of Alberta presented the findings from a new systematic review, which looked at 140 studies tracking body weight from childhood into early adulthood.  They found that 7 factors consistently predicted adult obesity in these 140 studies:

  1. High maternal body mass index
  2. Maternal smoking
  3. High maternal weight gain during pregnancy
  4. Rapid growth in infancy
  5. Being obese as a child
  6. Early adiposity rebound
  7. Low socio-economic status

This was followed up by Dr Lise Dubois from the University of Ottawa who discussed her findings from the Quebec Birth Cohort.  In her study she has found extremely strong relationships between parent and child obesity rates – children with obese parents 5 times more likely to be obese than children with no obese parents.  She has also found that food insufficiency (e.g. not having enough food to eat) in early life also dramatically increases the risk of childhood obesity, as does the lack of sleep during childhood.

Finally, Dr Matthew Gillman from Harvard explained that the childhood obesity epidemic is now seen even in infants, who are now heavier than in the past.  He also discussed the role of early catch-up growth in obesity, showing data that suggests that infants who grow more rapidly in the first 6 months of life (and especially those that grow more rapidly during the first 3 months) are at increased risk of both obesity and metabolic dysfunction as teenagers.

Some of these factors (maternal smoking, food insufficiency/insecurity) are factors that can be targeted in public health interventions.  Others, like adiposity rebound and maternal body mass index, are much more complicated to address.  As Dr Gillman pointed out, as we attempt to address the obesity epidemic we need to be aware that it affects people of all ages – even infants – and that factors related to early life can impact health well into adulthood.

Note: To follow the conference in real-time, please look for the #con11 hashtag on Twitter.


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