Predicting obesity as early as 6 months of age


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Obesity is a challenging topic to address, because many times, it opens the door to fat-shaming from family, coworkers and even healthcare professionals. But it shouldn’t be a cosmetic matter. Severe obesity increases your risk for cardiovascular diseases and other health problems, including heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

The health complications that result from severe obesity can be improved or even prevented with dietary changes and exercise. But is there a way to do this without leaving patients feeling horrible about themselves? This is a crucial point to consider as obesity rates among children continues to climb.

People can be cruel, and the psychological and even physical consequences of shaming a person who doesn’t fit into society’s accepted weight range, regardless of age, can arguably be just as detrimental as the health risks caused by being obese.


Predicting obesity

Severe obesity can be predicted using a simple body mass index (BMI) measurement as early as 6 months of age, according to a new study. The study is believed to be the first to show that weight gain during infancy differs in those who eventually develop obesity.

"BMI at 6, 12 or 18 months of age above the 85th percentile on the growth chart can accurately predict children at risk for early childhood obesity," says Allison Smego, MD, a fellow in the division of Endocrinology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Center and the study's lead author. "These children have a high lifetime risk for persistent obesity and metabolic disease and should be monitored closely at a very young age."

The researchers studied several groups of lean and obese children under the age of 6, including a group of severely obese children referred for specialized care to Cincinnati Children's.

All participants were selected based on BMI between the ages of 2 and 6. In all, 783 lean and 480 severely obese participants were included. The trajectories of BMI in children who become severely obese by age 6 began to differ from children who remain normal weight at about 4 months of age. Results of the study were validated in a population of young children seen in a hospital-based pediatric clinic in Denver to ensure that the findings applied to other groups of children.

"It's not currently recommended to measure BMI in children under the age of 2, but we say it should be because we now know it predicts obesity risk later," says Dr. Smego. "Pediatricians can identify high-risk infants with BMI above the 85th percentile and focus additional counseling and education regarding healthy lifestyles toward the families of these children. Our hope in using this tool is that we can prevent obesity in early childhood."


Proceeding with care

Prevention is always better than cure, but — especially because very young children would be monitored for potentially dangerous weight gain — we need to ensure they aren’t made to feel bad about themselves because they might be a little chubby.

Promoting good eating habits, such as avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugar and sodium, and an active lifestyle shifts the focus from “staying skinny” to being healthy instead. And it’s that shift that needs to be communicated to everyone of all ages and all walks of life — not just those who are severely obese. We can all learn to help address health issues with sensitivity and without making it about the way someone looks.