U.S. babies getting fatter, doctors say

Studies show increase of 73% in large infants


In a new study, Harvard Medical School researchers document a 73.5 percent increase in fat babies over a 22-year period - a trend they warn has worrisome implications for obesity in the U.S.

"Even our very youngest children are gaining excess weight, not just adults and adolescents," said Dr. Matthew Gillman, senior author and associate professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard.

Several factors are at play. More babies are large for their gestational age at birth than a quarter-century ago, in large part because more mothers are entering pregnancy overweight and developing gestational diabetes while pregnant. And more babies are gaining weight rapidly in the first few months of life.

The new numbers suggest "our obesity prevention efforts need to start at the earliest stages of human development," Gillman said.

That doesn't mean parents should be putting tubby babies on diets, doctors advised. But it does imply that mothers and fathers should be aware of how much food they're giving infants and talk about nutritional concerns with their pediatricians.

The Harvard study tracked extremely chubby infants less than 6 months old. Their weight adjusted for height placed them at or above the 95th percentile on growth charts, the cut-off point for being considered overweight. There is no definition of obesity in very young children.

By 2001 these babies accounted for 5.9 percent of infants, up from 3.4 percent in 1980, according to Gillman's report, published in the July issue of Obesity, a medical journal. That translates into more than 242,000 babies of the 4.1 million born in the U.S. each year.

The Harvard study analyzed weight data for children up to 6 years old, but its most notable results have to do with very young infants. Previous research has documented a sharp rise in the percentage of preschool children who are overweight but did not separate out results for babies. All together, more than 120,000 Massachusetts children were analyzed in the report.

No one knows how many of these infants will shed extra baby weight as they begin to crawl and walk and grow older. Some who start out at the top of the growth charts after birth will be of normal weight later in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

But a relatively new body of research shows that infants who gain weight rapidly early in life are at higher risk of becoming overweight in later childhood and adulthood.

Dr. Nicolas Stettler, assistant professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has done groundbreaking work in this field.

"What we've shown," he said, "is that if you look at weight gain early in life - during the first year, the first four months, even the first week - and then look at weight status in childhood and adulthood, you find a strong association."

Animal studies underscore the finding: When rats are overfed, they're more likely to become obese and diabetic.

"It could be that if you're overfed early in life, that may affect the brain's neurochemistry during a key development period and reprogram a person to eat to excess," Stettler said. Another hypothesis is that insulin secretion and metabolism could be altered in this early period.

Judith Graham writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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