Due to the soaring childhood obesity rates, many children are on the verge of type 2 diabetes. In fact, because of rising obesity and lack of exercise up to 25 percent of obese teens now have prediabetes.
“It’s very clear that childhood obesity is very dangerous and predisposes children to type 2 diabetes,” says Osama Hamdy, M.D., Ph.D., FACE, Medical Director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Joslin Diabetes Center.
But diabetes doesn’t have to happen to your children. Researchers now think one way to head off the disease in kids may be to intervene early, even before the child is born.
Why Parents Should Watch Their Weight
Moms who are obese may influence the likelihood of their children developing diabetes later in life. Scientists began to pay attention when research emerged revealing that infants born to women who are obese show higher risks of obesity. But the question of how maternal obesity might compromise a child’s health remained unanswered.
Recently, Joslin Diabetes Center researchers published a paper in the International Journal of Obesity to answer that question. The study involved 24 overweight or obese women and 13 women who were not overweight. Elvira Isganaitis, M.D., M.P.H., Assistant Investigator and Staff Pediatric Endocrinologist at Joslin Diabetes Center and Instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues compared the umbilical cells from newborns of obese or overweight mothers to similar cells from infants of non-obese mothers.
They found that the cells from babies of obese mothers showed impaired expression of the genes that regulate the production and metabolism of lipids. What this suggests is that already at birth there are detectable metabolic perturbations resulting from maternal obesity, says Dr. Isganaitis. “The study also suggests that the increased risks of obesity may be driven by higher levels of certain lipids, as well as hormones such as insulin and leptin, in the umbilical cord blood of the infant.”
Fathers also play an important role in the metabolic health of the child. While we usually focus on the mother’s state, we shouldn’t overlook the father’s weight, adds Dr. Hamdy. “A father with extra pounds during conception can have a big impact on the child. One study showed that obese fathers can pass along a genetic predisposition for obesity to their children.”
Cute and Chubby
Sometimes parents inadvertently serve their kids too much food thinking this is the way to keep them healthy. But feeding babies too much can cause them to acquire excess weight in the first years of life, setting in motion a lifelong weight problem. “It’s very, very important that parents don’t push food on their kids, serving them oversized portions” says Dr. Hamdy.
The reason is that the fat cell is different from any other cell in the body. “Fat cells rapidly increase in number in the first few years of life, and thereafter they grow in size. In the very early years, if a child has more fat that means more fat cells, and those fat cells will balloon in the future, which will lead to obesity,” he says.
Hope for Healthy Kids
While newborns born to obese mothers are more vulnerable to long-term health problems, including type 2 diabetes, there is a bright light. Childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes are preventable. Ideally, both women and men thinking about starting a family should maintain a healthy weight before pregnancy and the mother during pregnancy. In addition, by encouraging kids to maintain a healthy weight and stay physically active, their risk will be lessened even more.
“Your risk of chronic diseases isn’t set in stone at birth; we now know that there are many different periods in which your lifelong disease risk can be modulated,” says Dr. Isganaitis. “The hope is that in the future, we could develop tailored interventions to optimize the health of mothers and their children. If we could say, take this vitamin, exercise regularly and you can minimize obesity or diabetes risk in your child—I’m sure mothers would do it.”