Obesity remains one of the primary headlines every day. But what you probably don’t know is the fastest growing segment of the obesity epidemic is children less than 4 years old. Approximately 20 percent are obese (1). Even more disturbing is the growth of obesity in children under the age of six months (2). You can’t blame school lunch programs for this youngest group, since they are too young to go to school, and you can’t blame lack of exercise since they can’t walk yet.
Frankly, no child wants to be obese. In fact, their quality of life is similar to that of a child undergoing chemotherapy (3). Yet we are constantly reminded that they are obese because they lack personal responsibility, and they only have to “eat less and exercise more”. The fact that such interventions don’t seem to work is simply a minor detail (4-6).
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the culprit may be fetal programming in the womb that is causing epigenetic changes in the fetus before birth. This has already been demonstrated in pregnant rats that were fed a high-fat diet from the first day of pregnancy (7). These rats were genetically bred to be obesity resistant so that extra fat in their diet didn’t increase the body weight of the mothers during pregnancy. However, the offspring of those mothers fed the high-fat diet had blood sugar levels that were nearly twice as high as compared to offspring coming from the pregnant rats being fed a normal-fat diet. This is an indication that they were born with insulin resistance.
When researchers looked for epigenetic markers that might distinguish the two groups of offspring, sure enough they found chemical markers in the genes that regulate glucose metabolism. Since these epigenetic markers on the genes are not easily removed, the offspring with them would face a lifetime of dietary challenge to counteract their new genetic pre-disposition to obesity and diabetes.
So let’s come back to the growing childhood obesity problem in the very young. It may be due to fetal programming caused by high levels of both saturated and omega-6 fatty acids in the prenatal diet. Both types of fatty acids will cause increased cellular inflammation that can affect gene expression. If that occurs in the fetus, then that may be enough to genetically alter their future for a lifetime, including a far greater risk of obesity and diabetes.
- Anderson SE and Whitaker RC. “Prevalence of Obesity Among US Preschool Children in Different Racial and Ethnic Groups.” Arch Pediatric Adolescent Med 163: 344-348 (2009).
- Kim J, Peterson KE, Scanlon KS, Fitzmaurice GM, Must A, Oaken E, Rifas-Shiman SL, Rich-Edwards JW, and Gillman MW. “Trends in overweight from 1980 through 2001 among preschool-aged children enrolled in a health maintenance organization.” Obesity 14: 1107-1112 (2006).
- Schwimmer JB, Burwinkle TM, and Varni JW. “Health-related quality of life of severely obese children and adolescents.” JAMA 289: 1813-1819 (2003).
- McGovern L, Johnson JN, Paulo R, Hettinger A, Singhal V, Kamath C, Erwin PJ, and Montori VM. “Clinical review: treatment of pediatric obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 93: 4600-4605 (2008).
- Kamath CC, Vickers KS, Ehrlich A, McGovern L, Johnson J, Singhal V, Paulo R, Hettinger A, Erwin PJ, and Montori VM. “Clinical review: behavioral interventions to prevent childhood obesity: a systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized trials.” J Clin Endocrinol Metab 93: 4606-4615 (2008).
- Shaw K, Gennat H, O'Rourke P, and Del Mar C. “Exercise for overweight or obesity.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006: CD003817 (2006).
- Strakovsky RS, Zhang X, Zhou D, and Pan YX. “Gestational high-fat diet programs hepatic phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase gene expression and histone modification in neonatal offspring rats.” J Physiol 589: 2707-2717 (2011).