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Since old ages, we, as a society, have always ascertained that a mother- to- be gains sufficient weight. This diminishes the risk of low birth weight babies who can face many health hazards after their birth.

The menace of obesity

According to the latest report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity in Americans is steadily increasing. It has become more than 26% of all American citizens in the year 2009 as compared to less than 20% in the year 2000. Between the years 2007 and 2009, the states which have more than 30 percent of their population with a body mass index (BMI) in excess of 30, has almost tripled. And it is not only the obesity in adult population that is a matter of concern. Cases of childhood obesity have also multiplied three times in the last thirty years.

Many chronic conditions like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, arthritis and even cancer have been linked to obesity. As it is, shedding those extra pounds is not an easy proposition. If the body has a natural tendency to gain weight, then this task becomes all the more difficult.

Relationship between mother’s weight during pregnancy and obesity in children

Undernourishment of the fetus can result in its impaired growth, under-developed cognitive functions and the vulnerability to various diseases.

But now, with the rapidly rising rates of obesity, this traditional view point is being increasingly questioned. The focus is shifting to the fetal origins of different diseases that occur later in life, including obesity. Scientists are working on the association between the weight gained by the mother during pregnancy and the predisposition of the child to obesity in later life. They are trying to find out the genetic link involved, if any.

It has been seen that women who gain too much weight in pregnancy deliver heavier babies who are more likely to develop obesity later on. The gestational weight gain may affect the intrauterine milieu in a manner which may lead to obesity in the child.

Researchers have found that unnecessary calorie consumption can alter the hormonal chemistry and affect the various metabolic pathways in the developing baby. It can stimulate excessive growth of fetal tissues and can even modify certain parts of the brain which are responsible for controlling the appetite and the metabolism of the fetus. The uncharacteristic intra uterine environment resulting from these extra calories can produce permanent alterations in the brain, pancreas, adipose tissue and other metabolic systems of the growing fetus. These enduring changes in the different organs and the hormonal pathways can result in impaired maintenance of the body weight.

Studies have shown that mothers who gained more than 53 lb. (24 kg) during pregnancy have more than double the chance of producing a high-birth-weight baby, i.e., more than 8.8 lb. (4 kg) as compared to mothers who put on 18 to 22 lb. (8 to 10 kg).

Ideal weight gain during pregnancy

According to the latest guidelines issued by the Institute of Medicine, women of healthy weight should gain 25 to 35 lb. (11 to 16 kg) during pregnancy. Women who are overweight should gain 15 to 25 lb. (7- 11 kg) while obese women should not gain more than 11 to 20 lb. (5-9 kg) during pregnancy. Between 12.5 and 18 kg weight gain during pregnancy is recommended for women with a BMI of less than 19.8 kg/m2 while women with a BMI between 19.8 and 26 kg/m2 should gain between 11.5 and 16 kg. Not more than 6.6 kg should be gained by women with a BMI of more than 29 kg/m2 during the course of their pregnancy.

Pregnant women who gain 22.5 kilograms are twice more likely to have an infant with a high birth weight as compared with those who only gain about nine kilograms during their pregnancy. According to an analysis published in ‘The Lancet’, every kilogram gained during pregnancy increases a baby's weight by about 9.5 grams. A heavy birth weight increases the chances of an individual being overweight or obese in his childhood as well as in his adult life. Every 0.03 kg added to a 3 to 3.5 kg baby, significantly increases its chances of developing obesity later in the life.

The risk becomes even more pronounced with female babies borne to obese mothers as they are more likely to become obese themselves by the time they reach the reproductive age. The likelihood of passing this obesity to the next generation increases considerably.

Even a child born to a woman, who was overweight or obese before conceiving, has around 1.4 times more chances of gaining disproportionate weight by the time he turns four.

Steps to be taken to reduce unhealthy weight gain in pregnant women

Adequate screening for overweight and obese women and then proper interventions so that they achieve the proper BMI before they conceive is of utmost importance.

Hence, the need for suitable exercise regimens for all women of the reproductive age group, both before and during pregnancy, cannot be stressed more. This, along with other strategies to prevent disproportionate weight gain will lower the risk of producing children with a tendency to gain weight. Apart from the physical activities, the quality of food that a pregnant woman consumes is also very important. Maintaining a diet, that provides just the requisite number of calories for the proper development of the fetus, will prevent unnecessary weight gain during pregnancy.

And the best part is that unlike other people who need a lot of coaxing to give up unhealthy food habits, pregnant women are the easiest to motivate. For a mother to be, nothing is more important than the health of her unborn child. When imparted with the right knowledge about the danger of gaining too much weight during pregnancy, they will take all precautions to insure that they deliver a healthy child.

Though it still has not been conclusively proven, there are convincing indications, based on various studies carried out, that the amount of weight gained by a mother during her pregnancy has a strong bearing on the weight of her child. To tackle the menace of obesity, this should also be an area of focus. The efforts to prevent obesity in the next generation should begin even before birth.