Among the 19,958 mother-child pairs studied, 12.4% of children developed obesity or overweight in the full study group, and the children of those mothers who ate the most ultra-processed foods (12.1 servings/day) had a 26% higher risk of obesity/overweight, compared with those with the lowest consumption (3.4 servings/day), reports Andrew T. Chan, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues.
The results were published online in the journal BMJ.
The study shows the potential benefits of limiting ultra-processed food during reproductive years to decrease the risk of childhood obesity, the study authors note. Ultra-processed foods, such as packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, and sugary cereals, which are linked to an increase in adult weight, are frequently included in modern Western diets.
But the relationship between parents eating highly processed meals and their children's weight is unclear across generations, the researchers note.
“Overall awareness of the importance of diet in one’s personal health, as well as in the health of their families, is something that we hope will be a source of change, and certainly does start with promoting and educating people about the importance of diet during those critical periods,” Chan said in an interview.
He said it is important not to blame mothers for their kids’ health, as there are other things at play beyond just education. “It requires a concerted effort to ensure that we break down the social and economic barriers to access to healthy foods so that it becomes actually feasible for many women to be able to have access to a diet that will promote health for both themselves and their kids.”
Does Eating Ultra-Processed Food During Pregnancy Make Kids Obese?
In this study, investigators looked at whether eating ultra-processed food throughout pregnancy and while raising kids increased the likelihood of children and teens being overweight or obese.
The study team evaluated 14,553 mothers and their 19,958 children using data collected from two large studies. Males comprised 45% of the children in the cohort. The children spanned from 7 to 17 years of age.
Childhood obesity or overweight has been linked to maternal consumption of highly processed meals during child-rearing.
“We know that lifestyle during pregnancy is important for not only the health of the baby, but also the health of the mother. So, it does represent an opportunity for people to think critically about what they can do to really optimize their health, and it becomes a period of time where people are maybe thinking a little bit more about their health and are more open to new dietary counseling and also more motivated to effect change,” Chan says.
It's important for women to consider their diet, Chan says. Women need to take into account “what kinds of foods they are eating and, if possible, try to avoid ultra-processed foods that have very refined ingredients and a lot of additives and preservatives, because they tend to really have a higher content of those dietary factors that we think lead to overweight and obesity,” he says.
Physical activity is also important during the reproductive years and pregnancy, and people should aim to sustain physical activity during pregnancy and beyond, Chan notes.
The findings may be limited, as they were based on self-reported questionnaires and some mother-children pairs stopped taking part in the study during follow-up. Most of the mothers were from similar personal and family educational backgrounds, had comparable social and economic backgrounds, and were primarily white, which limits how this study can apply to other groups of people, the researchers noted.
“Staying healthy isn't something that you should really start doing in middle age or late adulthood, it is really something that should be promoted at a young age, and certainly during young adulthood, because of the influence that it has on your long-term health, but also the potential influence it might have on your family’s,” Chan says.