Your child’s weight in kindergarten could predict obesity later on

TORONTO — Being overweight in childhood is often seen as a phase, a “baby fat” kids grow out of. But a new study suggests that our weight by the time we enter school could predict our path into obesity as adults.

Kids who are overweight in kindergarten are four times more likely to become obese by their eighth grade graduation than their normal-weight counterparts, a U.S. study that followed the health of 7,000 students suggests.

“Our findings uncovered several important points by examining incidence over time,” lead author Dr. Solveig Cunningham, of Emory University, said in a statement.

“We have evidence that certain factors established before birth and during the first five years are important. Obesity-prevention efforts focused on children who are overweight by five years old may be a way to target children susceptible to becoming obese later in life,” she said.

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READ MORE: Preschoolers’ eating habits linked to future heart health risks

The study is based on the health data of children who participated in an early childhood longitudinal study in 1998-99 that spanned nine years. Cunningham and his team looked at the rates of obesity in the kindergarten kids and their subsequent years.

Over 12 per cent of kids entered kindergarten as obese — another 14 per cent were considered overweight.

Kids who were large at birth and overweight by kindergarten were at the highest risk of becoming obese before age 14.

By eighth grade, 17 per cent of the kids were overweight and 20.8 per cent were categorized as obese. Half of the obese teens were overweight kindergarteners.

The pattern suggests that our health — even during pregnancy and early childhood — is “set fairly early in life.”

READ MORE: Do babies inherit junk food addictions from their moms?

Dr. David Ludwig, a childhood obesity specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told NPR that pregnancy is even critical in a child’s life.

“Maternal diet, maternal weight gain and the infant’s diet during the first few years may have an outsized influence on long-term risk for obesity and related diseases,” Ludwig told the radio station.

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Another growing body of research includes paternal health and its effects on an unborn baby.

Advocates have been ushering in new ways to help kids fit in more exercise and influence them to eat healthier. That’s key to battling childhood obesity, Cunningham said.

READ MORE: Sesame Street characters to be used to help encourage kids to eat fruit, veggies

Her findings were published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Read the full study here.

Take a look at the breakdown compiled by the Associated Press:

WHO BECAME OBESE: Between ages 5 and 14, nearly 12 per cent of children developed obesity – 10 per cent of girls and nearly 14 per cent of boys.

Nearly half of kids who started kindergarten overweight became obese teens. Overweight five-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese (32 per cent versus eight per cent).

GRADE LEVELS: Most of the shift occurred in the younger grades. During the kindergarten year, about five per cent of kids who had not been obese at the start became that way by the end. The greatest increase in the prevalence of obesity was between first and third grades; it changed little from ages 11 to 14.

RACE: From kindergarten through eighth grade, the prevalence of obesity increased by 65 per cent among whites, 50 per cent among Hispanics, almost 120 per cent among blacks and more than 40 per cent among others – Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans and mixed-race children.

By eighth grade, 17 per cent of black children had become obese, compared to 14 per cent of Hispanics and 10 per cent of whites and children of other races.

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INCOME: Obesity was least common among children from the wealthiest families and most prevalent among kids in the next-to-lowest income category. The highest rate of children developing obesity during the study years was among middle-income families.

BIRTH WEIGHT: At all ages, obesity was more common among children who weighed a lot at birth – roughly nine pounds or more. About 36 per cent of kids who became obese during grade school had been large at birth.