Researchers in the U.S. say it is not just the adult population that is getting fatter and fatter, babies today are far more likely to be overweight than they were twenty years ago.
The researchers at Harvard Medical School have come to this conclusion following a study of 120,680 children under six years of age.
Lead researcher Dr. Matthew Gillman, an associate professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard Medical School, says the obesity epidemic in the U.S. even affects the very youngest children.
Dr. Gillman says the study is the first to show that overweight rates are going up in infants, in addition to toddlers and preschoolers.
By looking at records collected from pediatricians at 14 Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates practices in eastern Massachusetts for the years 1980 to 2001,Gillman's team found that children, especially infants, are now more likely to be overweight.
They found that the prevalence of overweight children climbed from 6.3 percent to 10 percent during those 22 years and the proportion of children at risk of becoming overweight grew from 11.1 percent to 14.4 percent overall.
The research team found that infants had a 59 percent increased risk of being overweight, and the number of overweight infants increased by 74 percent.
Gillman says a number of factors appear to be responsible for the trend, and he suggests that obesity prevention may need to start even before babies are born.
The first factor is that women who become pregnant weigh more than they ever have, and maternal body mass index is a determinate of infant weight at birth and after.
Also more mothers are putting on excess weight during pregnancy compared with decades past, and there is also an increase in type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes among mothers, which determine infant weight at birth and after birth.
Gillman also says how babies are fed may also be important as breast-fed babies tend to gain weight more slowly than formula-fed infants, and early weight gain can have implications for long-term health.
Other studies suggest that gaining excess weight during the first months of life is associated with becoming overweight and developing high blood pressure years later and infants who gain excess weight are more likely to suffer from wheezing, which can lead to asthma
In view of all these factors Gillman says preventing obesity at the very early stages of life must be considered and women need to maintain exclusive breast-feeding for at least four to six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Experts say the finding is just one more facet of the ongoing obesity epidemic but is not surprising.
But they do regard the message as disturbing for if weight gain becomes problematic earlier in life, other chronic disease can be expected to do the same.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's national reference data, children with a weight-for-height index between the national 85th and 95th percentiles for age and gender are classified as at risk for becoming overweight, and those with a weight-for-height index greater than the 95th percentile are classified as overweight.
The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Seiden-Denny Scholarship fund for Maternal and Child Health, Harvard School of Public Health, the Berkowitz Fellowship in Public Health Nutrition, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, and Harvard Medical School.
The report was published in the July issue of Obesity.