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A first-of-its-kind clinical study has been done to determine whether certain early life factors, relating to both mother and child, are responsible for childhood onset obesity.

A clinical research study was done by University College London in the U.K. that looked into certain lifestyle factors that affected weight development in children up to 10 years of age, and to determine whether certain body mass index (BMI) values were associated with markers of psycho-social well-being.

From the conclusion of the study it was found that certain modifiable risk factors such as the mother smoking during pregnancy, the child not getting adequate sleep and skipping breakfast were all early life predictors of whether a child would become overweight or obese.  

The other finding in the study was that being obese or overweight was associated with a child having a poorer psycho-social well-being, which could extend into the adolescent years and adulthood. The decreased psycho-social well-being could include unhappiness, a low self-esteem and developing problematic behaviours such as alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.

The study

The findings of the clinical study were based on information that was extrapolated from the Millennium Cohort Study which contains data from over 19,000 families from 2000-2002. This study used the height and weight measurements from children at the ages of 3, 5, 7 and 11. Although the research used observational information, which didn't allow for cause and effect conclusions to be reached, the sample study was large enough (well into the thousands) for the researchers to be able to take note of the influences on a child's weight measurements.

The findings in the information from the cohort study showed the following discoveries:

  • Children born to obese mothers were more likely to be obese themselves. This reflected the possibility of obesity being associated with a genetic link.
  • A disruption in routines such as skipping breakfast or irregular sleeping patterns affected weight gain due to children having an increased appetite for energy-rich foods.
  • Smoking during pregnancy was also linked to an increased chance of childhood obesity most probably due to an association between tobacco exposure of the fetus and motor co-ordination of the infant. This scenario is thought to be a developmental pathway to an increase in BMI growth.
  • Four groups of weight development were discovered. These included the "stable, non-overweight BMI group" of which the majority of children (83%) belonged to, the "moderately increasing BMI group" (13%), the "steeply increasing BMI group" (2,5%) and the "obese group" (0,6%).
  • In general, girls were found to belong in the "moderately increasing BMI group" and Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani children were found to belong to the "steeply increasing BMI group".
A surprising discovery in this study was that "obvious" factors such as prolonged breastfeeding, early introduction of solid foods, consuming sugary drinks, decreased fruit intake, minimal sports participation and prolonged TV viewing were not strong predictors of unhealthy weight gain.

Clinical suggestions based on the study 

The suggestion to physicians is to identify the modifiable risk factors that predict childhood obesity, and to incorporate preventative measures and management protocols that could have an impact in curbing increasing childhood weight and therefore help prevent obesity.

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