How Obesity Leads to Overweight Babies

More than 30 percent of Americans are obese, and even our babies are getting fatter year by year. What's happening, and what can we do to stop the trend? See more baby care pictures
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If you think you're carrying just a few extra pounds -- you know, the ones you promise to lose with every passing New Year's resolution -- you're not alone. America has a weight problem. Roughly 72.5 million adults are obese, which is about 32 percent of men and 35.5 percent of women. But what's the difference between a few extra pounds and being considered obese? Let's take a look at a woman who's 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 meters) tall. Based on her height, she should weigh between 101 and 136 pounds (45.8 and 61.7 kilograms). If she weighs about 165 pounds (74.8 kilograms) or more, she's considered obese [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

But the problem doesn't only affect adults. Kids and teens, ages 2 to 19, are considered obese if their body mass index (BMI) falls at or above the 95th percentile when compared to kids who are the same gender and age. Obese kids are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and fatty liver disease, among other health problems usually not seen until adulthood.

What studies are showing is that the obesity trend is a hard one to escape -- it's extending to our infants, as well. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that 6 percent of infants ranging in age from newborn to 6 months are overweight. That's up by more than 73 percent from 30 years ago. When you add in the number of babies who are at risk of crossing the line from normal to overweight, the percentage climbs to 17 percent [source: Los Angeles Times; Hellmich].

Obese babies may have incredibly pinchable cheeks, but that extra weight doesn't necessarily mean a healthy baby or a healthy beginning to life. It's not just baby fat, as many of us as apt to call it. That extra weight puts babies at risk for developmental delays, including rolling over and crawling.

Babies who weigh more than 10 pounds at birth -- known as macrosomia -- have a higher risk of becoming obese kids. Additionally, according to a study conducted at the Harvard Medical School, babies who gain weight quickly during their first six months have an increased risk of becoming obese by age 3 [source: Kalb]. While a chubby baby doesn't mean a life of obesity -- babies go through many types of growth spurts -- it's an effect that can snowball into a growing population of obese teens and adults.

What's causing American babies to have greater birth weights than they did just a few decades ago? Let's look at the influencing factors, beginning with circumstances before conception and during pregnancy.

Maternal Weight Before and During Pregnancy

Like our own weight is influenced by the calories we consume and the amount of exercise we get (or don't get), an infant's birth weight is determined by a combination of genes and environmental factors. These factors include such things as maternal weight before and during the pregnancy, as well as maternal health and lifestyle choices. How the unborn baby is affected by maternal factors begins even before a woman gets pregnant.

Obese women suffer health concerns that accompany that extra weight, including the following:

  • Insulin sensitivity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Inflammation
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Some cancers
  • Infertility
  • Birth Defects
  • Premature Birth

Losing weight -- even just 10 percent of what the scale says -- before becoming pregnant can help reduce her baby's risk of developing childhood obesity.

While dieting during pregnancy is a no-no, gaining too much pregnancy weight can be detrimental to both unborn baby and mother. Carrying too much body weight during pregnancy puts women at an increased risk for labor and birth complications, as well as preeclampsia (a form of high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy) and gestational diabetes (a form of diabetes that occurs only during pregnancy). The Institute of Medicine recommends that obese women gain very little weight during pregnancy -- only about 11 to 20 pounds (5 to 9 kilograms) total. That breaks down to gaining about 1.1 to 4.4 pounds (0.5 to 2 kilograms) during the first trimester, and then just 0.5 pound (227 grams) each week through the remainder of the pregnancy [source: Institute of Medicine].

Additionally, study after study shows that moms who are obese during pregnancy increase the risk of babies growing too large in the womb and being born with a higher-than-average birth weight (above the 90th percentile when compared to other infants of the same gender). One study found women who gain more than 53 pounds (24 kilograms) during pregnancy, compared to those who gain around 20 pounds (9 kilograms), are twice as likely to have babies with birth weights of 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms) or greater [source: Hensley]. Another, conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, found that almost 10 percent of obese moms had babies with birth weights of more than 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms) -- that's 1.7 times more than those born to normal-weight moms [source: Sun].

A healthy diet along with pregnancy-safe exercise (which can be developed with the help of a doctor) can help to control weight gain during pregnancy.

Post-pregnancy Factors

When it comes to diet and activity, what's a baby to do? Babies rely on parents and caregivers, and we're falling down on the job. Disagree? Consider that one-third of kids and teens are overweight or obese in the U.S. But if you ask parents, they'll likely tell you that their child isn't affected. In one recent poll, 84 percent of parents think their children are of healthy weight. In another, 60 percent of parents considered their overweight children to be healthy or underweight [source: Kalb].

Recognizing the problem is important, and it often comes back to the overall diet and exercise habits of the family. Diet and exercise are important before and during pregnancy -- as well as when you're not thinking about pregnancy at all -- and those habits tend to be shared among family members.

If you're wondering what the best diet for a baby is, look no further than breast milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk exclusively for infants 6 months and younger and advises that women continue breast-feeding for at least the first year. Infants who are breast-fed, according to a Harvard Medical School study, may have some protection against obesity as they age. Depending on the length of time a baby is breast-fed, it may reduce risk of becoming overweight through childhood and adolescence by as much as 20 percent [source: Harvard Medical School]. And that's despite factors such as prenatal exposure to gestational diabetes or an obese mother.

Once babies begin to eat solid foods, make it a sensible, healthy diet. The average infant (1 to 2 years old) only needs about 950 calories per day, but American babies are averaging closer to 1,220. A 2002 survey found that the most commonly consumed vegetable for infants ages 15 to 24 months is French fries, and 25 percent of them aren't getting daily fruits or vegetables. Pizza, though, they're getting plenty of that -- more than 10 percent eat pizza every day, and about 25 percent enjoy daily bacon [source: Warner].

What health professionals don't recommend is a diet full of soda and fast food, whether you're 7 months, 7 years or 70 years old.

Related Articles

Sources

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