Infancy Weight Gain Foretells Adulthood Obesity

Heli J. Roy  |  3/21/2005 11:03:19 PM

The problem of weight gain is increasing in the United States. More than 60 percent of population is overweight and more than 30 percent obese. Among African-Americans, obesity rates are even higher, says LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Heli Roy.

Obesity is thought to develop at critical times in a person’s life. Those times are infancy, early childhood and adolescence. In women, pregnancy is thought to be another critical period when obesity can develop.

Until the 1970s, Roy says it was thought that it was better to have a fat baby than a skinny one. She notes that it has always been thought that childhood and adult obesity were linked, but little scientific information backed up the theory. Few research studies have been done on African Americans. A study in June 2003 issue of "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" reports an attempt to determine whether rapid weight gain in early infancy is a risk factor for development of obesity in blacks.
The study included 300 black infants born between 1959 and 1966 who were measured for weight gain during infancy and 20 years later were assessed for incidence of obesity. Of the 300 babies, 86 had rapid weight gain during the first four months of life. Of these, 12, or 14 percent, became obese adults. Of the 214 that did not have a rapid weight gain during infancy, 12, or 6 percent, became obese in young adulthood.

There was no interaction between rapid weight gain and gender, birth weight, maternal Body Mass Index, maternal age, smoking status or education. The risk for becoming obese in adulthood with rapid weight gain in early infancy was calculated to be 30 percent.

Roy says a couple of reasons could be offered why early infancy may be an important period for the development of obesity in blacks. First, breast-feeding in the first year has been linked to reduced incidence of obesity in later life. In this study, most of the babies were formula fed; only three babies (1 percent) had been breast-fed.

Today, American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life. Breast-feeding has increased in the black population, with 45 percent of women breast-feeding their babies in 1998 versus 68 percent of white women.

Second, the formula used in the 1960s was very different from today’s, with many advances in research being integrated into formula preparations used today. Formula-fed babies today may respond differently than those from several decades ago.

Third, birth weight for black babies is lower than white babies and may result in rapid catch-up growth in early infancy. This may result in changes during development that carry into adulthood and increase the risk for obesity.

The LSU AgCenter nutritionist says this study is one of the first to relate rapid weight gain in the first four months to obesity in adulthood. This may eventually lead to changes in recommendations for infant feeding practices, and more stringent follow-up on weight gain by practicing pediatricians.

The current guidelines by American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months. The academy says exclusive breast-feeding is ideal nutrition and sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first six months. Infants weaned before 12 months of age should not receive cow's milk, but should receive iron-fortified infant formula.

Gradual introduction of iron-enriched solid foods in the second half of the first year should complement the breast milk diet. Guidelines recommend that breast-feeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.

In the first six months, water, juice and other foods are generally unnecessary for breast-fed infants.

Roy suggests contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office to learn more about combating obesity.

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