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Can Childhood Obesity Be Predicted at Birth? New Study Says Yes

It's possible to predict the likelihood of a child becoming obese from the time he or she is born based on a simple formula, according to a new study published Thursday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

A group of researchers set out to determine the most accurate predictors of childhood obesity based on their belief that "prevention of obesity should start as early as possible after birth," as they wrote in the study. They created a formula, available as an online calculator, which incorporates a child's birth weight, the body mass index of the parents, the number of people living in the household, the mother's professional status, and the smoking habits of the parents while the mother is pregnant.

The formula was developed based on data from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1986 Study, which tracked children from their mothers' early pregnancy. The researchers analyzed data from 4,032 children whose height and weight were recorded at ages 7 and 16, predicting the obesity status of each child at both ages.

The researchers' initial attempts to use genetic profiles to predict childhood obesity risk for newborns weren't successful, but by combining the risk factors mentioned above, they were able to accurately predict which newborns would eventually grow to be obese later in childhood.

Well and Good

After coming up with the formula based on the Northern Finland Birth Cohort, the researchers ran it up against two other sets of data to validate its effectiveness. One database was of 1,503 children ages 4 to 12 from Veneto, Italy; the other had data from 1,032 7-year-old children in Massachusetts.

"This test takes very little time, it doesn't require any lab tests and it doesn't cost anything," said study co-author Philippe Froguel, a professor from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, in a statement. "All the data we use are well-known risk factors for childhood obesity, but this is the first time they have been used together to predict from the time of birth the likelihood of a child becoming obese."

Based on their findings, the researchers suggest involving parents in the prevention of childhood obesity as early as possible after their children are born.

"Once a young child becomes obese, it's difficult for them to lose weight, so prevention is the best strategy, and it has to begin as early as possible," said Froguel in a statement. "Unfortunately, public prevention campaigns have been rather ineffective at preventing obesity in school-age children. Teaching parents about the dangers of over-feeding and bad nutritional habits at a young age would be much more effective."

They also recommend that Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign starts targeting children under 2 years old as "prevention targets," instead of focusing largely on preschool- and elementary-age children.

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