The earliest stages of your life matter a lot since your health status during that time plays a crucial, determining role for the rest of your life. This fact has been underlined by the prenatal care and advice given to pregnant women as well as the guidance provided to mothers with newborns and women in their reproductive years in general. Focusing on maintaining proper health during early life is now especially important, given the risk of childhood obesity and subsequent lifelong health risks.
Childhood obesity: an epidemic on the rise
A study published in The BMJ in 2005 was one of the earliest to point out the importance of managing obesity risk factors in early life. This study found that maternal practices before and during pregnancy, maternal education and breastfeeding and weaning practices after giving birth could play a role in childhood obesity. Apart from these, lifestyle practices in early childhood may also lead to obesity in adolescent years.
While this study focused on the UK, Indian studies have indicated similar trends in childhood obesity. A study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 2016 points out that due to a lack of nationwide studies, the exact childhood obesity rates in India may be difficult to determine. Yet, surveys conducted in 16 states of India revealed that there is a 19.3 percent prevalence of childhood obesity. The study also concluded that this high prevalence was primarily due to lifestyle risk factors that can be changed with better awareness campaigns.
Modifiable risk factors for childhood obesity
Recent studies show that modulating these lifestyle factors is critical during the earliest stages of life itself. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that early life is when appetite and regulation of energy balance are programmed and these can have lifelong consequences for obesity risk.
Early intervention to change the modifiable lifestyle risk factors can make a significant contribution to the prevention of childhood obesity.
A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition narrows down this bracket of early life by suggesting that the first 1,000 days of life, which means from the time of conception to the age of 24 months, make for the most crucial time period of life. This also suggests that maternal health and habits during and right after pregnancy would be the key determining factors for childhood obesity and subsequent risks of cardiometabolic diseases.
The six risk factors to change
This study, led by researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, is the first of its kind to examine the combined influences of early life risk factors on direct measures of obesity like body mass index (BMI), fat mass index, etc. Given that childhood obesity is now considered to be a strong predictor of metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, understanding and modifying these risk factors is vital.
To do this, the researchers studied 1,038 mother-child pairs registered in Project Viva, a prospective study based in Massachusetts, USA. They measured six modifiable risk factors in all participants:
- Smoking during pregnancy
- Weight gain during pregnancy
- Consumption of sugary drinks during pregnancy
- Duration of breastfeeding after birth
- Timing of the introduction of complementary foods in infancy
- Sleep duration of the infant
The researchers found that even after adjusting sociodemographic differences and maternal BMI before pregnancy, the combination of these modifiable risk factors increased crucial indicators of obesity such as high BMI, fat mass index, triglyceride levels and insulin resistance. Infants who have five to six of the above risk factors were at the greatest risk of becoming overweight or obese by the time they hit adolescence.
The study thus concluded that reducing the chances of the above risk factors may prevent childhood obesity and, in turn, risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. The earlier in life the interventions are implemented, the better the likelihood of good health outcomes for the children in later life.
For more information, read our article on Obesity.
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