Is that newborn on a diet?

This week’s New York Times magazine included a piece from the idea lab about research that is being done ways to prevent obesity in newborns. The piece explains that the study of obesity (a disease that affects almost a third of the US population) focuses on lifestyle and genetic causes, but researchers are beginning to look into a third area as well, what they call “developmental programming.� This idea proposes that “like many aspects of our physiology, [obesity] can be traced to the months just before and after birth, when the brain and other organs are still fine-tuning themselves.�
Statements like these frighten me, for a variety of reasons. Mainly, I get scared because the implications seem to further burden the pregnant woman—not only is she already freaked out by all the things that could go “wrong� during her pregnancy (there are a million and one books telling her exactly what to eat, how to live, what to avoid), but now we can scare her with another proposition, that if her child later develops obesity, it’s her fault. The article references a few conditions in utero that might have negative effects: the “thermal environment� or stress hormones in the mother. Of course appetite and metabolism are two things they also think are developed during this phase of development.
The main scientists researching these possibilities are trying to develop an infant formula that would “program babies’ metabolisms to provide permanent resistance to excess pounds.� The author takes this one step further—that this formula could turn these children into one of those people (you know, that we all hate) who can eat whatever they want and not gain an ounce. Forget breast milk ladies—now we’ve got trimspa for the three month olds.
Beyond the scary implications of this kind of manipulation at such an early age—is this really what we want for our children? This kind of intervention assumes that excess weight is the only marker for an unhealthy body, which we know is not true. What about skinny fat? Even someone with what is considered a “normalâ€? weight can have other health problems related to diet and exercise–high blood pressure, blocked arteries and high cholesterol. If weight gain is no longer a motivator for healthy eating, will we give in altogether? Also, we need fat, in certain amounts, it lines our organs and plays an important role in our body function.
The real scary sentiment is at the end of this piece where the author implies that the unhealthy eating habits “oceans of soda, mountains of baked goods and sparkling glaciers of ice cream� are an inevitable part of our society—so maybe it’s easier to change our babies than to change our habits.

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69 Comments

  1. mhothatch
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    and as a side note to those of you who think i’m blaming – i’m not. i understand the physiology of obesity – my brother’s a doctor and we’ve had many a discussion about my dad’s years of trying to diet – i’m not blaming, just suggesting that lifestyle choices made by parents can bear certain results in their children. neither of my dad’s children would be considered “obese” and none of his grandchildren either (to this point). so the special formula they’re talking about (and my mom used formula) might have ended up in my tummy – for no good reason.

  2. Lucy Gillam
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    I would just like to direct the poster who (a) proposed fines for parents of obese children and (b) told me there was no reason to worry about what I was feeding my infant daughter at this. This is exactly the kind of guilt and stress that gets thrown at new parents (read: mothers): if you don’t make precisely the right choices now, you could damage your child for life. It’s all over the place.

  3. Maggie
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    emcegg – I went to a school where a lot of people prescribed to “alternative” diets, if that’s an okay word, and I’ve been witness to fairly heated debates about whether it was okay for a vegan to breastfeed. I was always mystified, since I had assumed that at least part of being vegan had to do with animal rights, and the other with a certain idea of health, and since breastmilk neither harms animals nor is inherently difficult for human digestion, I’d have thought there wouldn’t be a problem. But nonetheless, they argued.

  4. Posted August 7, 2007 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I think the main reason why so many of us re put off by this research is that, even if the research itself is independent and purely scientific, we can all see where this very certainly may go. In a country that is so obsessed with weight and get-thin-quick schemes that you cannot look through a women’s magazine without seeing several ads for drugs that promise to make you sexy and skinny YESTERDAY, you just KNOW that formula companies and diet drug companies are just salivating at this opportunity to market this “magical formula” that will ensure your children never get fat!!!!!
    Personally, I think even thinking about weight and obesity when you’re talking about infants and toddlers is sad and plain wrong. Babies are supposed to be fat, they need fat. I used to work in a day care center and we had one gil that was under a year whose mother would ration out her food, not allowing her to eat any more than the prescribed amount, and the poor kid was constantly starving! It was so sad to see.
    Tell you what– you want kids not to grow up to be fat? Give them healthy lifestyles now. Limit tv and video-playing time, make them go outside and get some exercise, feed them healthy options (junk foods can be a treat), etc. Instead of putting money and time into researching even more “get thin quick!” solutions, why not invest in healthier eating for our children, and campaigning for that? How can that not be the natural and logical solution to this problem?
    Oh, and the thing about how this type of formula is needed b/c, well, junk food is “inevitable??” Please. Sounds like somebody’s already got ties to the junk food industry. It’s not that hard to enforce and encourage healthful eating. Even McDonald’s has salads now (yes, I know the dressings are still bad, but at least there’s improvement here, right?). Give me a break.

  5. Mina
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    “If parents gain the ability to control their children’s morbid obesity, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing. It IS, after all, an attempt to mimic nature. Which is useful if you’ve got to take a substitute.”
    That’s an interesting point. If the obesity-reducing chemical of this formula makes it necessarily bad, and the same chemical is in breast milk, then does that make breast milk necessarily bad too?

  6. sepra
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Maggie,
    Breastmilk is vegan. Respectfully, just because you heard some people argue about it, doesn’t mean that vegans wouldn’t or don’t breastfeed their children. In fact, the breastmilk of vegans may be healthier than that of people who eat hormone-containing meat and dairy products. Please go here for some great examples of vegan children who have gone on to live happy lives despite never having a chicken mcnugget. To say these people shouldn’t be “trusted” with a kid is a stretch.
    As for being on topic (sorry!), this formula does seem like a bad idea, but I also think it doesn’t actually partake in fat shaming. My biggest worry would be parents trying to prevent something with a magic bullet and having it backfire when it is too late. Perhaps instead, nutrition education might be a better long term “fix” than changing a baby’s hormone receptors. Women take Lamaze, maybe a class on baby/toddler nutrition would help alleviate fears while teaching people how to be healthier.

  7. Posted August 7, 2007 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Babies need fat to develop brain cells. And it sounds like this ‘formula’ would have some sort of chemical combination that would train their bodies to not gain weight…so is this the “alli for babies”? If so, I don’t want to change those diapers. Yeesh.
    So much for teaching our children healthy eating habits, and for that matter critical thinking skills and all those other crazy sorts of things. Why shouldn’t we just program them in utero and in their first few months of life and let them raise themselves?

  8. Lisa
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions?
    I wish that thought had been explored a bit more. Obesity comes from an evolutionary advantage. A fat person’s body works more efficiently than a thin person’s body. A fat person needs a lot less food to survive than a thin person does. Has it been that long since the Great Depression that nobody can foresee why feeding your kids formula that makes their bodies less efficient is as stupid as binding their feet would be? Of course, everyone thinks that widespread starvation can’t happen these days. Everyone thought there wouldn’t be another world war after the first one. M ore recently, everyone thought that house prices always go up… until a few months ago.

  9. auroraborealis
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    First of all obesity is still a relative term. The only current way to define one who is obese is either by their BMI (Body Mass Index) or if they are 25 pounds or more over their “ideal” weight.
    The BMI calculator is based on averages of white European’s heights and weights compared with age. This system was never meant to be the definitive measure of body mass and was only developed as a tool to help look at trends in a given population. People differ in their body compositions and distribution of fat. Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most “fit” had a BMI of 35, which, on the BMI scale, equals “morbidly obese”.
    As for the second way to define obesity,basing science on someone’s personal “ideal” does not qualify as a scientific method.
    This is not to say that there are some people out there who’s weight hinders their quality of life or who’s health problems are directly linked to their excessive weight. But to lump everyone together into the same pile, just based on our culture’s standards of what is an acceptable way to look (especially for women) and what is not, is not scientific fact.
    Our culture keeps starting this obsession with weight and food earlier and earlier in the life cycle and now we want to start in the womb, disgusting. This is how eating disorders develop, this is how people become “morbidly obese”. Our bodies are meant to have some fat on them, some more than others, and our bodies will keep finding ways to deposit that fat whether we develop a magic bullet for zygotes or not.
    So eat beautiful, fresh foods, enjoy them and love your body and maybe, by teaching our children to enjoy their food and love their bodies too, there won’t be a need for a magic bullet.

  10. Posted August 7, 2007 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Okay, want more information on the non-disease that is obesity?
    Check out Big Fat Facts.
    I have to say I’m pretty disappointed in some of the attitudes about fat and health coming out of feminist quarters – it’s as if these women and men don’t know that Fat IS a Feminist issue. Just as women aren’t to blame for all that happens to society, fat isn’t to blame either, and by extension, neither should fat people be blamed (and please don’t talk to be about “taking responsibility”, because I do not want to hear it – you don’t know what every fat person you see eats or does for exercise, etc).
    And to comment on the rest of this post – it’s a quite horrifying proposition, this ‘preventative’ kind of thing for infants. How about we cure cancer, end AIDS and prevent starvation first?

  11. l3j
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I actually know quite a few mothers who would LIKE to, but can’t, breastfeed.
    To add on to the list of reason why some mothers have to use formula: some women’s bodies don’t make enough breastmilk to adequetly feed their babies. I have known one. The baby wasn’t getting enough food, so she had to supplement with formula.

  12. Mina
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    “I actually know quite a few mothers who would LIKE to, but can’t, breastfeed.
    Indeed. What are they supposed to do if not use formula, hire wet nurses? That goes for fathers raising their babies without mothers, too.*
    “To add on to the list of reason why some mothers have to use formula: some women’s bodies don’t make enough breastmilk to adequetly feed their babies. I have known one. The baby wasn’t getting enough food, so she had to supplement with formula.”
    Good point. Does anyone else think of the possibility of a baby drinking both breast ilk and formula?
    * OTOH, I guess a few might still prefer breast milk…
    http://www.menstuff.org/issues/byissue/malelactation.html

  13. kissmypineapple
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    On the vegan diet issue: babies aren’t supposed to be eating dairy until they are 12 months of age anyway. The American Pediatrics Association recommends that because dairy can cause gastrointestinal bleeding in infants. Besides, as someone stated above, humans are not biologically meant to drink the breast milk of other animals. I love me some ice cream and cheese, but let’s not say that vegan parents shouldn’t be trusted if they want their babies’ fat to come from, well, not a cow.

  14. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Good point. Does anyone else think of the possibility of a baby drinking both breast milk and formula?
    Yes. I used it a few times when I couldn’t access stored breast milk and when my wife wasn’t around.
    It’s hard to do though because they taste quite different; many babies won’t switch well.

  15. MarshallL
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    A new born baby cannot be fed by a regular meal as that of an adult. Parents must be very careful in choosing products for their babies. Chances are that you’ve never heard of perchlorate. Perchlorate is actually a naturally occurring compound. It’s actually a salt, but it shows up in small amounts in nature, usually in areas that are incredibly dry, as it is very soluble in water. Recently higher amounts of Perchlorate have been showing up in drinking water and a few powdered baby formula brands. Perchlorate is used as a treatment for thyroid conditions, and introducing it in a system in which it wasn’t needed can interfere with infant brain development. The EPA is looking into some payday loans to clean up the levels of perchlorate in drinking water supplies.

  16. luhuien
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

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