Formula can predict childhood obesity risk at birth

29 November 2012

The risk of childhood obesity can be predicted at birth by taking a few simple factors into account, a new study has suggested.

A simple formula can be used to estimate the child's risk of becoming obese, according to the research published in the journal PLOS ONE - and it is available as an online calculator.

The equation takes into account the child's birth weight, the body mass index of its parents, the number of people in the household, the mother's professional status and whether she smoked while pregnant.

In order to develop this formula, the researchers used data from a study set up in 1986 that followed 4000 children born in Finland.

The scientists first looked at whether obesity risk could be predicted using genetic profiles, however it was found that the tests based on this theory failed to make accurate predictions.

It was found that non-genetic and easily gathered information could be enough to forecast whether the infant would go on to experience childhood obesity.

The formula has been proven not just in the Finnish study, but stood up to testing in Italy and the US too.

Professor Philippe Froguel, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, who led the study, said: "This test takes very little time, it doesn't require any lab tests and it doesn't cost anything.

"All the data we use are well-known risk factors for childhood obesity, but this is the first time they have been used together to predict from the time of birth the likelihood of a child becoming obese."

It was found that the 20 per cent of children who are predicted by the formula to be at the highest risk of obesity when they are born make up 80 per cent of obese children.

Professor Froguel said that the formula could be used to see which children could benefit most from the services of dieticians and psychologists. Giving certain families access to these medical professionals could cut the risk of childhood obesity and improve overall health, it is hoped.

"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," said Professor Froguel.

"Unfortunately, public prevention campaigns have been rather ineffective at preventing obesity in school-age children. Teaching parents about the dangers of over-feeding and bad nutritional habits at a young age would be much more effective."

While common genetic variants were not much use when it came to predicting childhood obesity, it is worth noting that around one in ten cases are due to rare mutations that drastically affect appetite regulation, according to researchers.

Childhood obesity is a leading cause of early type 2 diabetes, as well as a number of other conditions involving the heart. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly common in developed countries, with 17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls aged between two and 15 in England categorised as obese. 

Posted by Philip Briggs

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