Obesity News: Can Breastfeeding Really Spare Your Child from Weight Problems?

The latest research, plus why it's an ongoing debate.

mom breastfeeding baby

Does breastfeeding reduce your child's risk of obesity? The debate continues, but a new study gives us some more insight.

Researchers looked at the diets of 73 babies at 10-months-old and two-years-old, then again every two years until they turned 20-years-old. They found breastfeeding to be a significant factor in whether or not people were overweight by age 20. The study was published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

But there's a catch: Breastfeeding was only significantly associated with a lower risk of obesity when researchers accounted for the babies' diets when they started eating solid foods, at two-years old. When babies were breastfed, then fed diets higher in fat, they were less likely to be overweight almost two decades later, when compared to babies who were breastfed, but who ate low-fat diets at two-years old. So, breastfeeding may be beneficial, but the effects can be canceled out with a low-fat diet.

Say what? "Human milk is 55 percent fat," says Marie Franí§oise Rolland-Cachera, PhD, researcher at the University of Paris, and co-author of the study. Sticking with a high-fat diet after breastfeeding may help your child metabolize fat later in life, she explains. On the flip side, eating a low-fat diet at a young age may compromise your child's ability to metabolize fat intake in the future.

Related: 20 Benefits of Breastfeeding

But this doesn't mean you should feel bad if you're experiencing breastfeeding challenges. Here, we put the breastfeeding-obesity debate in perspective, and asked two researchers to answer the question of the hour: Does breastfeeding really reduce the risk of obesity?

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 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."

Related: 20 Benefits of Breastfeeding

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."