Washington, DC; December 19, 2003 -- Charting epidemic levels of obesity in the United States and many parts of the world, leading scientists and public health experts meeting in Washington have reached a consensus that adult obesity actually has some roots in fetal development and what happens at the earliest stages of childhood.
Attending an international conference on preventing childhood obesity, over 200 researchers from the U.S., Canada and Europe reviewed the latest data on the risk factors for childhood obesity, agreeing that a number of factors during pregnancy and infancy predispose children to obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life: elevated maternal prepregnancy body weight, smoking before and during pregnancy, maternal gestational diabetes, and either infant low birth weight or high birth weight. With underwriting from Gerber Products Company, the conference was sponsored by Shape Up America!, the educational initiative spearheaded by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1994 to raise awareness of obesity as a health issue.
Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spoke to conference attendees about the importance of addressing childhood obesity, especially in light of government statistics finding that 10 percent of preschool children ages 2 to 5 years are now classified as overweight. "I can't think about anything more important than preventing childhood obesity...we need to turn the tide...with clear, consistent, messages," he said.
Focusing specifically on the youngest children -- infants and toddlers -- researchers attending the conference recognized the value of catch up growth in low birth weight infants (weighing less than 5.5 pounds) but saw evidence that excessively rapid weight gain in those babies predisposes them to later obesity. Citing recent studies linking rapid growth in these infants with an increased risk for obesity and chronic diseases in adulthood, scientists speaking at the Shape Up America! conference recommended very careful monitoring of these high-risk babies to achieve an appropriate rate of weight gain during infancy. Because of the many challenges in feeding these infants properly, parents should seek the guidance of a qualified health care professional.
"Being born at a low birth weight and then gaining weight too rapidly during infancy may be the worst of all possible worlds," explained Matthew W. Gillman, M.D., Associate Professor of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Medical School and a leading authority on early life prevention of disease. "Getting out this message will be important for preventing obesity, diabetes and other disabling conditions later in life."
Conference Addresses What Infants and Toddlers Are Eating
To address some of the causes of childhood obesity, the symposium "Preventing Childhood Obesity: A National Conference Focusing on Pregnancy to Preschool," showcased new data from the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) commissioned by Gerber, which examines the eating habits and nutrient intakes of more than 3,000 U.S. children ages 4 months to 24 months old. While showing that American babies are meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements, FITS found that many infants and toddlers show signs of the unhealthful diet adopted by much of the adult population. Some major findings include:
According to Barbara Devaney, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and one of the FITS investigators, "Infants and toddlers are consuming too many calories, particularly from low-nutrient, high-calorie foods. Parents and caregivers should therefore focus on the quality and the variety of the foods they give to babies, encouraging nutrient-rich food choices. Parents should also pay attention to the babies' eating cues, as babies know when they need to eat and when they are full."
The conference also examined the role of taste and smell in guiding early food preferences. Reporting on the latest scientific findings, Julie A. Mennella, Ph.D. of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, stated that within hours of birth, infants exhibit a strong innate preference for a sweet taste. Dr. Mennella reported that because the constantly changing flavor profile of human milk reflects the mother's diet, breast fed babies tend to be more accepting of a variety of foods compared to formula-fed infants.
"Amniotic fluid and mother's milk reflect the culture into which the child is born," said Dr. Mennella. "The type of foods eaten by the mother, and hence the flavor principles of the culture, are experienced by the baby long before tasting of solid foods for the first time."
Strategies for Preventing Childhood Obesity
To identify factors that are predisposing young children to unhealthy weight and chronic disease later in life, researchers attending the conference focused on parenting practices that can be leveraged to prevent childhood obesity. Some of the messages for parents and caregivers are:
"We cannot sit on the sidelines as children become fatter and sicker," said Barbara J. Moore, Ph.D., President and CEO of Shape Up America! "Prevention of obesity starting in childhood is critical and can have a lifelong impact on weight and health."
Entitled "Preventing Childhood Obesity: A National Conference Focusing on Pregnancy to Preschool," the scientific meeting sponsored by Shape Up America! took place on December 8, 2003. Complete findings from the conference will be issued in early 2004. More information about the activities of Shape Up America! can be found on the award-winning Web site -- www.shapeup.org -- which provides interactive information and guidance on weight management, healthy eating, physical activity, childhood obesity, a 10,000 steps protocol, and many other topics related to prevention and treatment.
About Shape Up America!:
Shape Up America! was founded in 1994 by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to raise awareness of the health effects of obesity and to provide responsible information on weight management to the public and to health care professionals. The award-winning Shape Up America! Web site -- www.shapeup.org -- offers clear weight management information in an entertaining and engaging manner.
About Gerber Products Company:
Gerber Products Company is part of the Infant & Baby Business Unit within the Consumer Health Division of Novartis AG (NYSE:NVS), a world leader in pharmaceuticals and consumer health. In 2002, the Group's businesses achieved sales of USD 20.9 billion and a net income of USD 4.7 billion. The Group invested approximately USD 2.8 billion in R&D. Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland; Novartis Group companies employ about 77,200 people and operate in over 140 countries around the world. For further information please consult http://www.gerber.com and http://www.novartis.com.