It’s no secret childhood obesity in this country is a growing problem. In the United States, about 12.7 million children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 9 percent of babies and children up to age 5 are obese, compared to 17.5 percent of kids aged 6 to 11 and 20.5 percent of kids aged 12 to 19.
While many prevention efforts are put forth in school-age cafeterias, some researchers are beginning to think that may be too little too late. Instead, they agree targeting kids at the very start of life may help to get these stats moving in the opposite direction.
There are no studies that directly link the obesity epidemic to the events that occur in utero, said Dr. Melissa Mancuso, director of Akron Children’s Hospital Fetal Treatment Center. However, more and more evidence is pointing to pivotal events during pregnancy that can place babies on an obesity trajectory that’s difficult to alter.
“When you look at families, parents and children have similar eating and exercise habits,” she said. “A child’s environment and the way she’s raised are predicted when she’s born. It’s controlled by a combination of both genetics and the child’s environment.”
There is plenty of proof and consensus that exercise and eating well during pregnancy is beneficial to the health of the fetus. There’s more and more evidence suggesting this may be the case beyond the womb and well into adulthood.
Exercise during pregnancy lowers a mother’s risk for added weight gain, which in turn reduces her risk for gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. Studies show moms with gestational diabetes put their babies at a higher risk of becoming obese or developing diabetes later in life.
In addition, moms who don’t gain excess weight during pregnancy give birth to babies with a healthy birth weight. Large babies, those born 10 pounds or more, have a greater chance for diabetes and low blood sugar at birth, which can lead to seizures.
“The healthy lifestyle choices mom makes not only sets a good example for her baby, but also has a direct impact on the baby’s health,” said Dr. Mancuso. “The health of the fetus is dependent on the health of the mother.”
In addition, research has shown that the foods mom consumes during pregnancy can influence what her baby will enjoy eating after birth and for years to come.
A baby’s sense of taste begins to develop early in pregnancy. Therefore, the baby tastes in the womb the same flavors that mom tastes.
“I’m certain there’s a genetic component and some degree of programming in utero that occurs,” said Dr. Mancuso. “There is a genetic component to everything, from disease to the baby’s appearance to obesity. However, the portion that moms can control and alter, if necessary, is the baby’s environment to help avoid a path toward obesity and unhealthy habits.”