October 7, 2022 – Mothers who eat highly processed foods during pregnancy may contribute to their children becoming obese or overweight during childhood and adolescence, a new study finds.
Among the 19,958 mother-child pairs studied, 12.4% of children in the entire study group developed obesity or overweight, and the children of mothers who ate the most processed foods (12.1 servings/day) had a 26% increase % higher risk of obesity/overweight compared to those with the lowest consumption (3.4 servings/day), report Andrew T. Chan, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues.
The results were published online in the journal BMJ.
The study shows the potential benefits of limiting highly processed foods during the reproductive years to reduce the risk of childhood obesity, the study authors note. Highly processed foods, such as packaged baked goods and snack foods, carbonated beverages, and sugary cereals, which have been linked to weight gain in adults, are common features of the modern Western diet.
However, the relationship between parents who eat highly processed meals and their children’s weight is unclear across generations, the researchers note.
“General awareness of the importance of nutrition to personal health, as well as the health of their families, is something that we hope will be a source of change and certainly begins with encouraging and educating people about the importance of nutrition Nutrition during these critical periods,” Chan said in an interview.
He said it’s important not to blame mothers for their children’s health because there are other things at play besides education. “It will take a concerted effort to ensure that we break down the social and economic barriers to accessing healthy food so that it becomes actually feasible for many women to have access to a diet that is suitable for both themselves and theirs children is health-promoting.”
Does Eating Ultra-Processed Foods During Pregnancy Make Children Obese?
In this study, researchers examined whether eating ultra-processed foods during pregnancy and while raising children increases the likelihood that children and adolescents will be overweight or obese.
The study team evaluated 14,553 mothers and their 19,958 children using data from two large studies. Males made up 45% of the children in the cohort. The children were between 7 and 17 years old.
Childhood obesity, or overweight, has been linked to maternal consumption of highly processed meals during childrearing.
“We know that lifestyle during pregnancy is not only important for the health of the baby, but also for the health of the mother. So it represents an opportunity for people to think critically about what they can do to truly optimize their health, and it comes at a time when people might think a little bit more about their health and be more open to new nutritional advice are also more motivated to bring about change,” says Chan.
It’s important for women to consider their diet, Chan says. Women need to consider “the types of foods they eat and, if possible, try to avoid ultra-processed foods with very refined ingredients and lots of additives and preservatives, as they tend to contain higher levels of these nutritional factors, which we believe that they lead to overweight and obesity,” he says.
Physical activity is also important during the reproductive years and pregnancy, and people should aim to maintain physical activity throughout pregnancy and beyond, notes Chan.
Results may be limited as they were based on self-reported questionnaires and some mother-infant pairs stopped participating in the study during follow-up. Most of the mothers had similar personal and family educational backgrounds, comparable social and economic backgrounds, and were mostly white, limiting the study’s applicability to other populations, the researchers noted.
“Staying healthy is not something you should really start with in mid or late adulthood, it really is something that should be encouraged at a young age and certainly young adulthood as it has a long term impact on health but also the potential impact it could have on your family,” says Chan.