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You’ve heard plenty about the childhood obesity epidemic. What you may not know is that moms-to-be are contributing to the problem. When women weigh too much at conception or gain too much during pregnancy, they can set their children on the path to obesity and add to the next generation’s weight struggles.
As it is, nearly half of U.S. women enter pregnancy overweight, one-fifth are obese when they conceive and up to 40 percent of all pregnant americans gain more than recommended. This excess weight is hard on moms. Studies have shown that being overweight or obese is associated with gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, premature labor and newborns larger than 8 pounds, 13 ounces, a size more likely to cause birth injuries. Heavy women also have longer labors, one reason they’re at higher risk for cesarean section. But the most provocative new research is looking at the impact of a mom’s extra pounds on her baby. Here are some of the latest findings:
When a mom-to-be weighs too much, her body becomes an “obesogenic environment,” says Yuan-Xiang Pan, Ph.D., a professor of molecular nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He compared normal-weight and obese rats during pregnancy and found the heavier moms had more harmful fats in their blood and more of a hormone that lowers sensitivity to hunger cues. For their fetuses, this was like growing up in a neighborhood full of fast-food restaurants: Unhealthy nutrition was programming them to become obese.
It’s long been clear that heavy moms risk having babies with abnormally high birth weight—often a result of the mother’s elevated blood sugar or gestational diabetes—but a new study found that mom’s extra weight can alter the baby’s body composition.
“When pregnant women gain too much, their newborns are significantly fatter,” says Jami Josefson, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who used innovative methods to measure the body fat of newborns. Even when the mom had healthy blood sugar levels and birth weight was normal, these infants averaged 17.5 ounces of body fat compared with just 13.9 ounces in the leaner newborns whose moms had gained a healthy amount of weight. A high birth weight raises the risk for childhood obesity, Josefson says, but extra fat at birth could be an additional risk factor.