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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