Rapid Infant Weight Gain May be Associated with Obesity in African American Young Adults

05/22/2003

PHILADELPHIA, May 22 /PRNewswire/ -- African Americans who gained weight rapidly in the first four months of life were more likely than their peers to be obese as young adults, 20 years later, according to researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. Their study, published in the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, analyzed data on 300 people in Philadelphia who were followed as part of a long-term, larger study from 1962 through 1989.

"This study establishes, for the first time to our knowledge, that a rapid infant weight gain pattern from birth to age four months is associated with obesity in young adulthood," Nicolas Stettler, M.D., M.C.S.E., a pediatric nutrition specialist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and primary investigator of the study. "This suggests that early infancy constitutes a critical period for the development of adulthood obesity."

Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions among both children and adults in the U.S., and obesity rates are particularly high among African Americans. These results may support a public health focus on strategies for preventing obesity early in life, during critical periods of growth.

This study reinforces Dr. Stettler's earlier research that found that rapid weight gain during the first four months of life was significantly associated with an increased risk of being overweight at age seven, regardless of birth weight and weight at one year of age.

That study reflected a much larger sample of both white and African American children from 12 U.S. cities, of which the current population is a subset. Data were drawn from The National Collaborative Perinatal Project.

Approximately 29 percent of the subjects in this study had a rapid early infancy weight gain, and the prevalence of adult obesity was 8 percent. Subjects with a rapid early infant weight gain were more than twice as likely to be obese 20 years later than subjects without rapid early infant weight gain. (The risk for adult obesity increased with more rapid rates of weight gain in early infancy.)

Rapid infancy weight gain is a pattern of weight gain that exceeds average patterns of growth during infancy. For example, in this study, those who gained more than 8 to 10 pounds between birth and age four months had a 14 percent risk of becoming obese at age 20 years, compared to 6 percent of those who gained less. The average weight gain in the first four months of life was about 7 to 8 pounds.

"This may lead to new hypotheses to origins of obesity and to new approaches for obesity prevention. Currently, it is premature to make recommendations for treatment, further research is required," said Stettler. "However it may be helpful to know that the American Association of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life, a practice generally associated with a slower rate of weight gain and possibly a decreased risk for overweight in childhood and adolescence." The database from which this study was drawn did not include information on breastfeeding.

Of note, the prevalence of obesity found in the study for African American young adults and their mothers was considerably lower than the prevalence observed today in African American adults and women of childbearing age. Therefore the public health impact of the findings may be more important today than for the period when these data were collected, added Stettler.

Coauthors of the study are Babette S. Zemel, Ph.D. and Virginia A. Stallings, M.D. from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., University of Pennsylvania, Solomon H. Katz, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania.

Founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is ranked today as the best pediatric hospital in the nation by a comprehensive Child magazine survey. Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country, ranking second in National Institutes of Health funding. Children's Hospital operates the largest pediatric healthcare system in the U.S. with more than 40 locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

CONTACT: Joey Marie McCool of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, +1-215-590-7092, or McCool@email.chop.edu