Face-Off: Does Breastfeeding Protect Babies From Obesity Later In Life?
Our experts face off. Chime in with your own comments.
Yes, says Christopher G. Owen, Ph.D., senior lecturer in epidemiology, St. George's, University of London, England, and author of a Pediatrics article on infant feeding and the risk of obesity.
Breastfeeding may have a small protective effect against obesity later in life, according to our recent review of published studies. However, it remains unclear whether this effect is due to something in breast milk per se. Rather, it's possible that mothers who breastfeed their babies are likely to be more health-conscious and engage in a wide variety of healthier behaviors that reduce their child's risk of becoming obese.
That said, choosing to breastfeed is important for a number of health reasons, such as improved mental development, fewer allergies and possibly lower cholesterol in later life. We need to encourage the lifestyle that results in a mother choosing to breastfeed, as it is lifestyle that appears to be more important in determining whether an infant becomes fat later on in life. Future public-health interventions should encourage eating less and exercising more.
No, says Hillary Burdette, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia and author of an article on infant feeding and childhood weight problems in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Many studies that show breastfeeding may protect against obesity use body weight as a measurement. For our research, we used dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), which distinguishes between fat and nonfat tissue (muscle and bone). We felt this was a better measurement because the health concerns associated with obesity--such as diabetes and high blood pressure--have to do with fatness rather than weight.
In our study of more than 300 Caucasian and African-American 5-year-olds, we found no difference in fatness regardless of infant feeding practices. Even prolonged breastfeeding past the first year showed no protective effect. Nursing offers many benefits to moms and babies, but for mothers who can't breastfeed, our study should be seen as good news.