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Infants in Food Insecure Homes at Greater Obesity Risk, Study Finds

Shot of a mother feeding her adorable infant daughter at home

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Key Takeaways

  • Babies from households where food is scarce have a higher obesity risk than infants from households where food is plentiful.
  • Previous findings have identified greater obesity rates in adults from households without enough food to eat, but few studies have focused on infants from such homes. 
  • Enrollment in either of the federal food assistance programs WIC or SNAP did not lower infants’ risk of being overweight if they came from a food scarce household.

Babies in households where food is scarce—referred to as food insecurity—have a higher obesity risk than infants in homes with enough for everyone to eat, a new study suggests.

The finding comes after researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health tracked 666 low-income infants in their first year of life, a novel move since previous studies examining the link between food insecurity and obesity have largely focused on adults. As joblessness grows in the wake of the coronavirus, so does the likelihood of babies living in food insecure households that raise their risk of obesity.

What the Study Found

In a statement about the study, lead author Sara Benjamin-Neelon. PhD, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School's Department of Health, Behavior and Society, says that "one possible explanation for this link is that food insecurity is associated with lower quality diets that promote obesity, although infants, especially in the first six months of life, should be consuming limited foods—mainly just human breast milk or infant formula."

The babies monitored for the study, which was published in Pediatrics and took place from 2013 to 2017, lived in households in Durham, N.C. More than half (55.4%) came from homes with reported annual incomes below $20,000. The majority (68.6%) of the infants were African American, and a minority (14.9%) were White.

The researchers visited their households when the babies were 3, 6, 9, and 12 months old, and conducted phone interviews with their mothers another eight times over the year. They found that the infants from very low food security households had more body fat and were much heavier than their peers from food-secure households.

Overall, babies from homes with low and very low food security were 1.72 and 1.55 times more likely of being overweight, and their mothers’ participation in either of the two federal food assistance programs Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had no bearing on these outcomes.

Overfeeding and Breastfeeding May Be Factors

The researchers suspect that mothers in food insecure households may overfeed their babies (by urging them, for example, to finish a bottle when they’re already full) to ensure these children get enough nourishment.

“People are really worried that their children aren't getting enough to eat because they don't always have enough food in the house, and usually with food insecurity, what happens first, of course, is that the parents will go without food,” says Geraldine Henchy, director of Nutrition Policy and Early Childhood Programs at the Food Research & Action Center. “They're trying to protect the children, but they get really nervous about not having enough food.”

This can lead parents to feed their children excessively, but Henchy says that other factors might also be at play, such as the mother’s body mass index (BMI) at conception. Women with obesity tend to have babies with higher rates of obesity. These mothers are also more likely to introduce infants to solid foods earlier than ideal, which research links to a higher obesity risk in non-breastfed infants.

The researchers at Johns Hopkins found that the infants from low and very low food insecure households typically moved into the overweight risk category sometime between the three-month visit and the 12-month visit. In contrast, infants in food secure homes tended to move out of the overweight category between the three-month visit and the 12-month visit.

“Interestingly enough, breastfed babies have a different growth trajectory, and they can actually be heavier sometimes in the beginning than non-breastfed babies,” Henchy says.

Breastfeeding is also related to socioeconomic class, and by extension, food security. Low-income women are less likely to nurse their babies for as long as upper-income women do. Their employment circumstances often require that they return to work quickly after birth, and cut breastfeeding short. But breastfed babies are more likely to regulate their food and less likely to be obese as a result. This gives these infants an edge because children with an above-average body mass index (BMI) may develop health problems later.

Health Problems Related to Childhood Obesity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with obesity are more likely to experience the following medical conditions:

  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol, both risks for cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes
  • Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea
  • Joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort
  • Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (i.e., heartburn)

Childhood obesity also puts juveniles at risk for developing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression; low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life, and social problems such as bullying and stigma, the CDC reports. If these children go on to become adults with obesity, they are more likely to develop other serious health problems, including several forms of cancer.

The Need for More Research and Parental Help

To acquire a better understanding of the relationship between obesity and food insecurity, the study authors conclude that larger and longer studies should be completed on this topic. Future research could also examine whether obesity in infancy is likely to extend to later childhood. Until then, Hency says it’s important for the federal government to help parents make the best choices for their children without the stress of food insecurity.

“Making SNAP adequate is very important because right now it's not really enough money for people to be able to get all that they need,” she says. “These mothers don't feel secure, and they are often skipping meals to make sure everything works out as far as the food supply. We need to stop that situation, and we can do that through SNAP.”

What This Means for You

Childhood obesity is linked to negative health outcomes for youth as they age, so parents should take care not to overfeed their babies or give them table foods before it’s age appropriate. Speak to a pediatrician about how to keep a child’s weight in the healthy zone, and inquire about nutrition classes for parents of infants and small children.

If there’s not enough food to go around for every household member, ask a pediatrician, preschool official, social services representative, or others who work with children about federal food assistance programs that may help.

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