When it’s no longer baby fat

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© Najlah Feanny/Corbis

Holding on to the belief that children will shed their “baby fat” as they get older may be perpetuating the childhood obesity epidemic, and laying a foundation for obesity later in life among overweight tots. According to 2006 data from the Centers for Disease Control, 16% of American children were obese, and 32% overweight, with a growing proportion of overweight and obese children under age four. That is why it is critical to identify the “tipping point” between baby fat and obesity risk, according to research from Eastern Virginia Medical School and Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters that was published this week in the journal Clinical Pediatrics. In a study of 111 overweight patients between the ages of two and 20, researchers analyzed the patterns of children’s weight gain to determine at what age intervention to prevent obesity is most useful. Their conclusions: some children were on the road to obesity as early as three months, meaning that doctors need to discuss unhealthy weight gain with parents as early as their child’s infancy, but certainly no later than age two.

The children included in the study all had a body mass index (BMI) higher than 85% of the rest of their age groups—the definition for overweight—and, according to their medical records, on average most had begun gaining excess weight (.08 excess BMI units per month) as early as three months old. As they got older, the incremental accumulation of excess weight caught up with them, with more than half of children becoming overweight by age two, and 90% becoming overweight by age five.

The findings, the researchers stress, indicate the need for pediatricians to address weight gain during routine check-ups as children grow, and to equip parents with the information they need to ensure that their children aren’t on course for obesity and its many health consequences, later in childhood and later in life. The key, the researchers write in the study, is prevention: “[O]lder identified overweight children arise from excessive weight gain in infancy/toddlers,” a finding which means that, “future research should investigate prevention and treatment strategies to mitigate excessive weight gain at this early stage.”