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Obesity Prevention Starts in the Womb

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Obesity might start at birth for babies whose mothers gain excess weight during pregnancy. A new finding from researchers suggests obesity prevention starts in the womb.

Mothers who gain excess weight during pregnancy give birth to heavier babies. Until now genetic factors were implicated as contributing to adult obesity, but now researchers find weight gain during pregnancy that leads to higher birth weight also means obesity in adulthood.

According to David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) at Children's Hospital Boston where the study was conducted, "Since high birth weight, in turn, increases risk for obesity and diseases such as cancer and asthma later in life, these findings have important implications to general public health.

It's appropriate for a baby to be born with some fat, but a baby born too fat indicates that the fetus developed in an abnormal environment during the most critical nine months of life." The findings suggest that maternal weight is an important factor that leads to obesity for babies with high birth weight.

Excessive Weight Gain During Pregnancy, High Birth Weight and Obesity Link

Animal studies show that hormones and metabolic pathways disrupt body weight regulation when maternal weight gain is excessive during pregnancy..."even the structure of tissues and organs that play a role in body weight maintenance are affected," says Dr. Ludwig.

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The researchers examined birth records of mothers who had at least two lives births - 513,501 women and 1,164,750 infants to reach the conclusion that maternal weight gain is a risk factor for babies with high birth weight and obesity as adults.

Women who gained 44-49 pounds during pregnancy were 1.7 times more likely to have a baby with high birth weight. Weight gain of more than 53 pounds increased the odds 2.3 times. The women were compared to those who gained 18 to 22 pounds. The researchers found that more weight gained during pregnancy progressively lead to babies with higher birth weight, putting them at risk for obesity in adulthood.

How Much Weight is too Much During Pregnancy?

Guidelines for women from the Institute of Medicine suggest women gain 28 to 40 pounds if underweight at the start of pregnancy, 25 to 35 pounds for women whose weight is normal and 15 to 25 pounds if overweight. Obese women should gain 11 to 20 pounds.

The findings suggest there are hormonal factors that occur in the womb from excessive weight gain during pregnancy that leads to high birth weight and obesity in adulthood. Mothers who gain too much weight during pregnancy may be putting their babies at risk for a lifetime of obesity related health problems.

The Lancet: doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60751-9