• Thu, Nov 29 2012

New Formula Can Predict Obesity At Birth (But Don’t New Parents Have Enough To Worry About?)

Scientists have come up with a new formula that can accurately predict, at birth, whether a child will be obese. The formula, which you can access as an online calculator, estimates a newborn’s obesity risk based on his or her birth weight, the body mass index of the parents, the number of people in the household, the mother’s professional status and whether she smoked during pregnancy. In theory, this sounds great like a great health tool but I’m concerned about adding another worry to the already fierce pressures of new parenthood.

In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers used information from a study that began in Finland in 1986 and followed 4,000 children. They hoped to find genetic markers for obesity, but instead ending up finding that non-genetic information available at the time of birth was enough to accurately predict obesity later in life, including childhood obesity.

Researchers said they hoped that this new formula would be used as a way to identify babies at risk for obesity and help families to prevent a child from becoming overweight. Philippe Froguel of Imperial College London said:

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.

I certainly can’t disagree with the idea that prevention is best, but I think that if this calculator were to come into standard use, it would cause more harm than good. Having a baby is a gigantic, life-shaking, highly-stressful change, no matter how prepared you are: parents (especially mothers) are under enough pressure just trying to figure out how take care of their baby (Breastfeed? Bottle feed? Cosleep? Cloth diapers? How do even I wash this kid? What does it mean when he/she screams like that? And on and on…), not to mention how to take care of themselves. Adding the pressure of a possible obesity risk for a newborn seems like a needless, way-far-down-the-road worry for most moms.

After all, if a mother is overweight either before her pregnancy or when she gives birth, her care provider should have discussed the possible health ramifications of that condition for both the mother and the baby. I don’t think a percentage calculated by a formula will make a huge difference to that mom. And let’s not forget that more and more information is coming out all the time that says body mass index (BMI) is not necessarily an accurate predictor of health (or even whether or not someone is actually overweight).

I don’t know, I might be wrong. It could be that this calculator, if implemented, could do some great work, helping to fight our country’s insane obesity epidemic. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the goal of improving people’s health and I imagine a conscientious parent, could, with the right support, prevent their child from becoming overweight if they came out with a high calculation that affected them enough. But there’s no way of predicting behavior (either of the parent or the child) once the calculation has been performed.

I wonder how researchers propose the calculator be used. In the hospital, birth center or other place of birth? By a doctor, nurse, midwife or pediatrician? By parents themselves? It seems like it would only work well if it was performed and discussed in a clinical setting, so a care provider could make measured recommendations based on a family’s medical history, lifestyle, income level and more. This is a sensitive, important topic that has to be broached with the utmost care to new parents.

Ultimately, it seems to me like there are too many unknown variables in regards to use and implementation for this obesity calculator to be of any real value to most parents. What do you think?

Photo: Shutterstock

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