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Breastfeeding May Protect Kids From Obesity


WebMD Health News

May 15, 2001 -- According to the latest national figures, about 13% of all children and teenagers in the U.S. are overweight for their height and age.

Being overweight puts kids at heightened risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other potentially deadly health problems as they age. But new research is suggesting there may be something relatively simple that mothers can do early in their child's life to prevent or reduce the risk of becoming overweight.

"We now have one more reason to think that breastfeeding has beneficial effects on kids," says Matthew Gillman, MD, SM.

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His study of over 15,000 children found that those whose mothers gave them more breast milk than formula or whose mothers breastfed them for six months or longer had the lowest risk of being overweight by the time they were 9-14 years of age.

The study appears in the May 16 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

Gillman, an associate professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard University School of Medicine says he can't be sure of the exact mechanism by which breastfeeding lowers the risk of obesity.

One possible explanation is that babies who breastfeed regulate their own food intake such that they can stop when they feel full while a bottle-fed baby may continue to eat more than he or she really wants because the person feeding them keeps feeding until the bottle is empty. This could cause kids to develop larger appetites from a young age. Another possible explanation is that components in breast milk can "program" the infant's body weight for life.

Gillman's study also found that the mother's weight played a role. Thinner mothers were more likely than heavy mothers to breastfeed and thinner mothers were the most likely of all to breastfeed the longest.

Gillman says more research is needed, but the findings could help explain some of the factors that tie breastfeeding, weight, and overall health together.

But not everyone is in agreement that breastfeeding itself is a major contributor to preventing a child from being overweight or obese.

In the same issue of the journal, another study by Mary L. Hediger, PhD, found that among 2,600 children aged 3-5, kids were three times more likely to be overweight if their mothers were either overweight or obese. The explanation could be related to either inherited traits, the environment, or a combination of both. In other words, it is possible that many children of overweight and obese mothers are overweight themselves because of improper diet and lack of exercise, not because their mothers did not breastfeed them.

"Yes, breastfeeding may help, but it's not the only factor that's going to help prevent overweight [children]," says Hediger. "If you are an overweight woman yourself and you have a child ... once you stop breastfeeding you have to make sure that child gets a nutritious diet and plenty of exercise. Breastfeeding is no 'magic bullet.' You're just going to have to stay vigilant."

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