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Infant feeding choices and obesity

I really hate the media sometimes. The number of inflammatory headlines that they come up with when discussing breastfeeding never ceases to amaze me. No wonder some mothers are scared right into formula feeding. The problem is that these stories often do not show all angles of the issue.

The latest scare tactic: If you eat junk food and breastfeed, your child will be obese

In my Google Alerts on Breastfeeding, this article popped up: Moms Eat Junk Food, Kids Get Fat. It reports on a study that found that rats that consumed junk food during pregnancy and while breastfeeding had offspring that preferred junk food too. This was, of course, in comparison to rats that ate healthy diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, I worry that the leap that too many people make is to assume that if they cannot wean themselves off of junk food entirely (e.g. "I need my Friday afternoon Kit Kat" or "I like to eat chips while watching Desperate Housewives"), then they would be better off formula feeding. But the study didn't compare the obesity rates in the offspring of breastfed junk food eating rats and the offspring of formula fed rats.

The truth about formula and obesity

Infact Canada has put out an excellent article on the linkage between formula feeding and obesity (Enough is Enough - Obesity and Formula Feeding), talking about our society's premise that "more is better". The article explains how formula fed babies are fed according to manufacturers instructions (and target profit margins no doubt) and encouraged to finish up their bottle, rather than being fed according to baby's appetite. The article highlights three reasons why breastfeeding protects against obesity:

  1. Breastfeeding could be part of a choice system running through families that counters poor food choices. Formula feeding may be seen as the start of a lifestyle of consuming commercially processed foods higher in sugar, fat and nutritionally reduced.

  2. There are substances in breastmilk that regulate the neuro-hormonal system controlling food intake. It is known that there are long-term differences between those breast and formula fed during infancy in the responses of gut endocrines to a meal.

  3. Breastfed infants are able to regulate their food intake according to their growth and developmental needs and they control the amount of breastmilk produced by their mother. Thus for the breastfed infant the point of satiety is determined by internal physiology rather than by external cues, which are mostly quantitative, as is the case for the artificially fed infant.

In addition, in an attempt to make formula more like breastmilk, formula companies have been adding certain types of fat to artificial baby milk. They claim that these fats are exactly the same as what is in breastmilk. However, experts claim that this could not be further from the truth and worse yet, these added fats could be contributing to the obesity epidemic (source: Commentary on formulas supplemented with DHA & ARA).

A good start

In another article on infant weight gain and obesity (Infant Weight Gain May Predict Obesity), Dr. Gillman suggests a strategy for early life interventions that could decrease the risk of obesity:

  • Exclusive breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of life. Since it is very hard to overfeed a baby fed only breast milk, Gillman says reducing obesity risk later in life may be yet another benefit of exclusive breastfeeding.

  • No early solid foods.There is some evidence that introducing solid foods before the age of 4 months may increase the risk for obesity later in childhood, Gillman says. (phdinparenting note: Solids are not recommended until at least 6 months)

  • Know your baby's satiety signals. Especially important for bottle-fed babies, recognizing when your baby is hungry and when she is crying for other reasons can minimize overfeeding.


Obesity is an important health issue and will have greater impact on our health care system than smoking did for our parents' generation. We all want our kids to be healthy and it is great to think about what can be done early in life to decrease their chances of becoming obese. Of course, it makes sense for breastfeeding mothers to try to eat healthy foods wherever possible, but I have trouble believing that a bit of junk food here and there could undo all of the benefits of breastfeeding as it relates to obesity risk.

I also imagine (although I don't have the studies to prove it) that growing up in a home where junk food is eaten regularly is going to put you at a great risk of being obese, whether you are breastfed or formula fed, because those children are going to pick up their eating habits from their parents. So I highly doubt that the mother that eats junk food all the time and chooses not to breastfeed is doing anything to decrease her child's risk of being obese.
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Reader Comments (5)

Good article! I have to say that the linkage between mother's consuming junk food and obesity probably has more to do with the eating habits that are encouraged in childhood rather than the breastmilk that a junk-food eating mom produces.

Our children emulate us and if they see us eating "junk food" on a continuous basis they, in turn, will follow in our footsteps.

That is why a healthy diet and lifestyle are so essential, not just for us, but for our kids too.

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermilitarywifey

[...] rather have them walk. We hear so much about childhood obesity. I’ve blogged before about infant feeding choices and obesity, but I think that keeping kids in strollers for most outings until they go off to kindergarten is [...]

[...] - bookmarked by 3 members originally found by gamer1189 on July 17, 2008 Infant feeding choices and obesity http://phdinparenting.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/infant-feeding-choices-and-obesity/ - bookmarked by [...]

August 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBookmarks about Obesity

[...] impact on the health of the next generation. We need to give our children a good head start by making the right choices about infant feeding to avoid obesity and then continue to feed our children healthy foods that are low in sugar and low in saturated [...]

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