Breastfeeding - A Prophylactic to Obesity?

by Dia L. Michels

They have to keep replacing the seats. Stadiums, opera houses and theaters all across America have found that patrons won't keep coming unless they make room for them - room in the seats, that is. In the United States, obesity is increasing at an epidemic rate. Simply put, Americans are bigger than they've ever been before. 61% of adults in the United States are overweight or obese resulting in increases in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, sleep apnea, depression, even death. Sadly, it is not just adults that are outgrowing their seats. Fully, 20% to 25% of kids are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

So it may not come as a surprise to learn that the one of the US Government's national health objectives for the year 2010 is to reduce the prevalence of obesity. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recently spelled out four top priorities for curbing the obesity epidemic. These include increasing physical activity, increasing consumption of fruits & vegetables, reducing TV viewing and . increasing rates of breastfeeding.

Adding to the growing body of evidence of the health benefits of breastfeeding, it seems that researchers have found a conclusive and significant link between breastfeeding in infancy and obesity later in life. Researchers at U.C. Davis analyzed breastfeeding research from several years of study that included tens of thousands of children from seven countries (including 32,000 Scottish children) and found that those who were breastfed had a 30 percent reduction in obesity rates. Harvard researchers surveyed about 15,000 children, ages 9 to 14, and found that those who were fed only or mostly breastmilk during their first six months of life had a 22% lower risk of being overweight during adolescence than those who were mostly or only fed formula as babies (researchers tried to control for mothers' weight and other socioeconomic factors that could explain the results). In addition, the risk of becoming overweight went down with each additional month of breastfeeding.

And the longer babies were breastfed exclusively before being switched to formula or food, the lower their chances of starting school overweight or obese. One study, which tracked 9,357 children in Bavaria, found that infants given only breastmilk until they were 3 to 5 months old were more than one-third less likely to be obese by age 5 or 6 than babies given only formula from the start. Those breastfed exclusively for 6 months to a year fared even better - they were 43% less likely to be obese. Better still, breastfeeding beyond a child's first birthday was better still, giving babies a 72% lower chance of turning out obese.

Even some breastmilk proved to be better than none. Children who were breastfed for only the first month or two of their lives were 10% less likely to be obese by the time they entered elementary school with the risk diminishing the longer breastfeeding continued into childhood.

These findings are consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to breastfeed for at least the first year of a child's life. Yet in the US today, only about 65% of new moms ever put their newborn to the breast, and 70% of them quit before the baby is six months old. Just 17% of American children are getting any breastmilk at their first birthday. Indeed, increasing the breastfeeding rates could be a powerful strategy for fighting the escalating phenomenon of childhood obesity.

What is it about breastmilk that it can have such a preventative impact on weight years later? There appear to be numerous answers to that question. Babies who are breastfed are better able to program themselves to stop eating when they are full; they learn to self-regulate their caloric intake over time. Parents who bottle-fed want their infant to finish the formula and often over-feed their child. Over-feeding in infancy can increase the number of fat cells. Babies fed formula in the critical early weeks of postnatal life have changes in pancreatic islets and leads to overproduction of insulin and development of obesity in adulthood. Breastfed babies have higher levels of leptin, a hormone that helps to regulate appetite. And feeding a child formula helps develop their natural affinity for foods that are fatty and sweet. Formula is made with sucrose (essentially table sugar) that is much sweeter than lactose, the sugar found in breastmilk.

Experts caution that breastfeeding is certainly not the sole answer to the childhood obesity epidemic. In fact, the clearest predictor of which children will grow up too fat remains genetic -- children with fat parents are five times more likely to be fat. And kids who eat unhealthy diets and don't exercise will become overweight no matter what shape their parents are in. Yet, this new research makes the list of reasons to breastfeed just a little longer.

Reference Material:
When you go to this page, there is a link for the Resource Guide (PDF). Pages 32-36 are the section on BF.
UC Davis, Kathryn Dewey, Breast milk may help control growing appetite •
Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, (Journal of the American Medical Association)
•Hediger, M.L., Overpeck, M.D., Kuczmarski, R.J., & Ruan, W.J. (2001). Association between infant breastfeeding and overweight in young children. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2453-2460.
•King, D.E. (2001). Breastfeeding and overweight children and adolescents. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 16, 42.
Bavarian study, Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 16, 1999.•
• uids=10406746&dopt=Abstract
Breast feeding and obesity: cross sectional study.
von Kries R, Koletzko B, Sauerwald T, von Mutius E, Barnert D, Grunert V, von Voss H. Institute for Social Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Ludwig Maximilians University, Heiglhofstr 63, D-81377 Munich, Germany.

Dia L. Michels is co-author of Breastfeeding at a Glance: Facts, Figures and Trivia about Lactation and If My Mom Were a Platypus: Mammal Babies and Their Mothers. She can be reached at Reprinted with permission from Platypus Media is dedicated to portraying the values of family affection, sharing and growth, to give parents the resources to share and explore attachment values with their growing children. For more information, visit or call 1-877-PLATYPS (toll-free).