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Breastfeeding Fosters Thinner Children

But Many Other Factors Are at Work
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WebMD Health News

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June 6, 2002 -- We hear countless reports on the epidemic of obesity among American children. But it looks like breastfeeding may be one way to help fight this growing problem. This new research joins several recent studies showing that breastfeeding may protect against obesity.

"There is probably a modest biologic effect at play here, but it is extremely difficult to sort out from other social and cultural factors that surround the decision to breastfeed," Mary Hediger, PhD, tells WebMD. "Of course, there are many very good reasons to breastfeed your baby. But those who can't for whatever reason shouldn't think that they are dooming their child to obesity."

Hediger, researcher at the U.S. National Institute of Health, says there are many factors associated with a mother's decision to breastfeed that may explain the research findings. Hediger published a study last year showing a weak link between breastfeeding and lower childhood obesity.

In the most recent study, published June 8 in The Lancet, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland reviewed health records for roughly 32,000 Scottish children.

Children who had been breastfed as infants were 30% less likely to be obese. And this was true even after accounting for birth weight, sex, and socioeconomic status.

"Our findings suggest that breastfeeding is associated with a modest reduction in childhood obesity risk," says study co-author John J. Reilly, PhD.

Research has shown that in the developed world, women who choose to breastfeed tend to be better educated and more affluent. These factors also tend to influence the overall health of the mother and her child.

There does seem to be some relationship between breastfeeding and obesity, it isn't known whether it's due to something particular about breast milk or to the characteristics of mothers who breastfeed, Hediger says. The major problem is that the effects of the mother's lifestyle may be masking any biological effect of breast milk.

The reduction in obesity in the current study was roughly double that seen in Hediger's study. Hediger says that being overweight in early childhood is only slightly predictive of obesity later in life. In this study, breastfeeding was not associated with a reduction in obesity among adults.

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