A recently published study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine describes a correlation between babies whose weight-to-height ratios increased more than 2 percent in their first 2 years of life and obesity rates when the children were older. Babies who grew at such rates had twice the risk of being obese at age 5, as well as an increased risk of obesity at age of 10. Babies whose weight-to-height ratio went up more than 2 percent in their first 6 months were especially at risk of obesity in later childhood, says the study.
Researchers studied the medical records of 44,622 infants and children younger than age 11 in the Boston area; their growth measurements had been routinely taken during doctor check-ups from 1980 through 2008. Lead author Dr. Elsie Taveras, an obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School, describes such rapid growth as nothing less than a “red flag” for doctors to note, as well as a sign that parents could be feeding their children too much or not ensuring they get enough exercise, perhaps because the children are spending too much time in strollers instead of crawling. For babies, bigger is not better, says Dr. Taveras.
But other doctors expressed immediate concern about the public response to such findings: What if parents whose babies have such rapid growth put such young children on a diet?
Other scientists indeed say that doing so is simply a “bad idea that could backfire in the long run.” Dr. Michelle Lampl, director of Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health, and Edward Frongillo, an infant growth specialist at the University of South Carolina, voiced their concerns in an editorial accompanying the study. Says Dr. Lampl:
“It reads like a very handy rule and sounds like it would be very useful — and that’s my concern,” Lampl said. The guide would be easy to use to justify feeding infants less and to unfairly label them as fat. It could also prompt feeding patterns that could lead to obesity later, she said.
Lampl noted that many infants studied crossed at least two key points on growth charts; yet only 12 percent were obese at age 5 and slightly more at age 10. Nationally, about 10 percent of preschool-aged children are obese, versus about 19 percent of those aged 6 to 11.
Dr. Lampl and Frongillo write that more research is necessary to investigate the study’s findings, as “the potential to do more harm than good is actually very high.” Dr. Taveras emphasized that her study pointed to the risks of rapid weight gain in babies and is “not a reason” to put them on a diet.
Obesity in general, and obesity among children (which is currently at 17 percent among US children) are certainly public health concerns. But scientists need to keep in mind the potential for the public to misconstrue their findings and “stoke parenting fears just as much as body-image anxieties.” Putting such a young child — a baby — on a diet could be setting her or him on a one-way route to a “lifetime of unhealthy eating patterns.”
Of course parents want to do the best for their children to ensure they have happy, healthy, long lives. With so much more information about raising children available and so quickly via the internet, scientists must take especial care and caution in presenting their findings to the general public. Here in the US, we’re diet-crazed and body-image-obsessed enough as it is without parents starting to worry about how much their infant is eating and looking askance at a little guy with chubby cheeks.
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