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Breast-Feeding and Obesity: Natural Opponents?

January 17, 2013 By:
Lauren Kramer, JE Feature
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It's no secret that breast-feeding is good for babies. But it may also reduce their risk of obesity later in life. That’s according to a recent study by researchers at Mount Sinai’s Sam­uel Lunenfeld ­Research Institute in Toronto, published last month in the International Jour­nal of Epidemiology.

Dr. Stephen Lye and his team followed children in Western Australia from birth to age 14 and dis­covered that the length of time a baby is breast-fed positively affects the fat mass and obesity gene (FTO) in young adults. Specifically, breast-feeding can help reverse the effects of that gene variant if a child is exclusively breast-fed for a three-month minimum. 

The research team noted that girls required a minimum of three months breast-feeding but boys appeared to need a longer breast-feeding period to have the full affect. They concluded that three to six months of exclusive breast-feeding would be the best approximation to impact the FTO gene.

Childhood obesity is a serious problem that impacts chronic diseases in the long term as well as ­increased health care costs. “This study is one of the first examples of early intervention in the fight against obesity,” says Lye, associate director of the Institute in Toronto. “Rather than trying to treat the symptoms later, we’re better off trying to prevent them in the first place.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., 17 percent — 12.5 million — of American children and adolescents between age 2 and 19 are obese. What that means, in es­sence, is that their body-mass index is 30 or over.

Obesity prevalence among young children and teens has almost tripled since 1980 and obesity in the population at large is projected to continue to rise. Over the next 18 years, the CDC projects that 42 percent of Americans will be obese.

The numbers of severely obese people in this country — i.e,. those carrying 80 or more pounds than the healthy weight for their height — is expected to grow by 130 percent.

The FTA gene comes in two flavors: good and bad, Lye explains. “We all have two copies of this gene, but 20 percent of Caucas­ians have two copies of the bad variant. Under these circumstances, as an adult, on average you would have 3kg of fat mass more than you might otherwise.”

For those children who have at least one copy of the specific variant of the FTO gene responsible for increased BMI and obesity, that increase can be seen as early as age 6.

The first 2,000 days of life — rough-ly from conception to school age — a child undergoes massive development. “We’re understanding that while your ­genetic makeup controls the overall blueprint of how that development occurs, the environment interacts with it to put children on varying paths that impact their learning, health and social functioning,” Lye says. 

“Our interest is in how the environment interacts with our genetic make­up, and this study shows that we can modify our genetic blueprints through positive environmental interventions.”

While there are other genes associated with massive obesity, they are very rare, Lye adds. “In genetic terms, this gene variant is actually a large contributor to obesity,” he says.

“This is one intervention and one gene, but it sets a proof of principle that if we understand more about how trajectories are settled during life, we can develop interventions that enhance how children optimize their full potential.”

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