According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 39 million children were overweight or obese in 2020 – conditions often leading to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and even early death. While ultra-processed foods such as packaged baked goods and snacks, sugary cereals, and fizzy drinks – which are commonly found in Western diets – are associated with weight gain in adults, it is still unclear whether there is a link between a mother’s consumption of ultra-processed foods during pregnancy and her offspring’s future body weight.
Now, an international team of experts has discovered that prospective mothers’ consumption of such foods during their pregnancies seems to be linked to an increased risk of overweight or obesity in their offspring, irrespective of other lifestyle factors. The scientists suggest that mothers may benefit from limiting their intake of ultra-processed foods, and that dietary guidelines from health authorities should be refined, and financial and social barriers removed to improve nutrition of pregnant women and thus reduce childhood obesity.
The researchers collected data on 19,958 children born to 14,553 mothers (45 percent of them boys with ages between seven and 17 at the beginning of the study) from the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II) and the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS I and II) in the United States. In their analysis, they also took into consideration a range of other potentially influential factors that are known to be highly correlated with childhood obesity, such as mother’s weight, levels of physical activity, smoking, living status (with or without a partner), and partner’s education, as well as children’s consumption of ultra-processed foods, physical activity, and sedentary time.
During an average follow-up period of four years, 2471 children became overweight or obese, suggesting that a mother’s ultra-processed food consumption was associated with an increased risk of such conditions in her offspring. For instance, a 26 percent higher risk was identified in the group with the largest ultra-processed food consumption (12.1 servings per day) in comparison to the lowest consumption group (3.4 servings per day).
Although this is only an observational study, so causality cannot be properly established, the findings “support the importance of refining dietary recommendations and the development of programs to improve nutrition for women of reproductive age to promote offspring health,” as the authors concluded.
The study is published in the journal The BMJ.
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