Preventing child obesity starts in the previous generations

Jul 07, 2017

The chances that a child will become obese in later life are largely determined before they are even conceived, as researchers believe parent’s health is key to tackling obesity in future generations. In a series of studies that appear in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, findings point to the pre-conception period as a missed opportunity to prevent the ‘inheritance’ of obesity from parent to child.

Referring to the escalating tide of obesity worldwide, the team of researchers argued that a new approach was overdue and different ways to prompt potential parents into improving their health were needed. The idea of transmitting obesity risk to future generations is not a new one. A body of evidence has identified the genetic component of obesity and other conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. The fear is in passing on these conditions to the baby, the child will then grow into an adult and possibly transfer their defective genes onto the next generation.

According to one of the research papers, the scale of the problem has been somewhat ignored as children, while appearing healthy, may be at a high risk for obesity and chronic disease in later life. ‘Top-down and bottoms-up’ In an accompanying comment piece, professor Mark Hanson of the University of Southampton looked on the education of future parents as key to tackling the issue.

“The approach is both top-down and bottom-up,” he said. “Even more importantly, it requires something in between which young people help to create themselves. If at present many young people do not seem to care about their health or view it as a low priority, perhaps they have not been given clear information about what they can do to optimise their health for themselves and their children.”

The professor urged governments to give adolescent health priority in national health strategies, plans, and budgets, referring to the commitment politicians had made in accordance with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health.

"Helping today's young people, many of whom are already on a risky path to obesity, to have healthier lifestyles will not only benefit them in the future but can save their future children from obesity too,” he said. “There is no single solution - tax on sugar, limiting advertising of unhealthy snacks, etc. - we need to attack the problem on many fronts. They are the future - don't they deserve better than a life sentence of obesity?"

Worldwide call to arms The sheer scale of childhood obesity across multiple continents has prompted the WHO's director-general to form a task force dedicated to ending childhood obesity.

This group, which reported to the World Health Assembly in May 2016, emphasised the need for action, not only in childhood but also earlier in the life cycle both before and during pregnancy. This shift in emphasis mirrors other global initiatives. In April the UN General Assembly urged governments to tackle overweight as well as underweight in children younger than five years. As part of its Decade of Action on Nutrition initiative the UN expressed this action as critical in reversing the burden of diet-related non-communicable diseases across all age groups.

This initiative ties in closely with Sustainable Development Goals (target 2.2) drawn up as targets for 2030 to ‘end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving by 2025 the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under five years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, and older persons.’ Source: The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology “Influence of maternal obesity on the long-term health of offspring.”

Authors: Keith Godfrey et al.

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